A History of Disability

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In A History of Disability, Henri-Jacques Stiker applies Foucault’s genealogical framework to the analysis of historico-socio-cultural constructions of disability (Ingstad and Whyte 1995: 3-34). He traces the roles of impaired bodies in societies, and societal responses to them, in cultures ranging from ancient Judaism, early Christianity and Western antiquity, through to the Western present.

A theme that appears common to most societal responses to impaired bodies, is the liminality of the disabled body. Early Judaic systems of thought permitted a “double practice of religious prohibition and ethical obligation” (Stiker 1999:29) (i.e., the exclusion of impaired bodies from religious rituals on the basis of its connection to sin and profanity, as opposed to the simultaneous responsiblity to provide for these bodies through charity). In Western antiquity, Oedipus (who began life with as an exposed infant with “swollen feet”, and ended life blind) was both “cursed and the bringer of misfortune, but untouchable and sacred”, while Hephaestus was a god and was yet marked and expelled by the gods (Stiker 1999:47-64). In contemporary society, wherein we view disability through a lens of pathologization/rehabilitation (Stiker 1999:121-190), we define disability in order to rehabilitate or accommodate it and thus to eliminate the state of disability (which by definition only exists in the absence of rehabilitation or accommodation) thus constraining it to a state of liminality.

Given the sociocultural specificity of the concept of disability, and of the roles played by medical assistive devices in construction of the disabled identity, I felt it necessary to first understood how social constructs of disability function in different historico-cultural milieus. Stiker’s Foucaultian genealogical approach to studying the history of disability resonated with me, given the language of normalization that is predominant in contemporary discourse on disability rights (which I felt to be similar to the pathologization/systematization of criminality and sexuality described by Foucault).

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