By Sophie Mattholie (she/they)
This piece is part of the We Are LUNA zine. The full zine can be viewed here: https://issuu.com/thelunaproject/docs/we_are_luna_ or listened to here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/5vAfESFMrSMWDafJKXaC9Z?si=fc821d0b7f284e34
The first few times you walk into a lecture theatre in your first year of university are intimidating enough. Doing this with your walking stick in hand, desperately scanning the rows of folding seats for another person who was visibly disabled, adds another dimension to this fear.
Like many History students, I have spent a significant portion of my degree so far seeking diverse histories - ordinary working-class people, people of colour, women, disabled people - with mixed results. My department has decolonised the curriculum to a large extent, but it’s far from perfect. Just as I walk into lectures wondering where the disabled people are, I sift through readings and feel the pain of our absence. Disability as a whole was absent from my first term, save a brief mention of disabled beggars, and it was not until my second term that it was covered in any detail. In an optional module called ‘Empire, Welfare and Citizenship’, we learned about some of the horrendous attitudes held toward poor and disabled people in the 1800s. These concepts of eugenics, degeneration, and destitution did not fulfil my desire to find myself in the curriculum, but rather left me with a sour taste in my mouth.
Disabled people have been around for all of history, but I struggled to find proof of that. Just as I had hunted for role models who were living their best lives with chronic illness in the present, I wanted to see that in the past, disabled people had been anything other than dead, dying, or suffering in poverty.
While disability has frequently been linked to those things, both the past and the present show that it doesn’t have to be. History is rich with examples of disabled people fighting back, advocating for their rights, and living well instead of just surviving. In 1297, the residents of a leper house in West Somerton, Norfolk, mutinied against the thieving abbot who was supposed to be looking after them. They killed his guard dog, destroyed parts of the building, and stole extensively (including nine swans!). Local authorities were told that around £100 of damage had been done - that’s over £85,000 today. In the Tudor period, Will Somer and Jane the Fool, two people who are believed to have had learning disabilities, lived lives of luxury in Henry VIII’s royal court, highly valued for both their humour and their directness. There were three different deaf artists who flourished in the Georgian court. And in more recent times, high-profile protest has won us rights - the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, among others.
These examples break away from the ideas of disabled people as passive, dependent on welfare, and confined to poverty. With current society becoming more accepting, I can only hope that disabled history students are able to see themselves reflected in the past more accurately, without having to hunt for it. Disabled people are here and glorious, and we always have been