Reimagining Disability

Nothing About Us Without Us

Throughout time, Deaf and disabled people can be traced archivally across different sites and places. In more recent times, histories of Deaf and disabled people have been overrepresented in specific contexts, such as sheltered workshops, residential homes, and medical settings, notably hospitals. Sometimes, little information is given about Deaf and disabled people, as the sources are often written in third person, deficit-based (through a traditional or medical model of disability) and paternalistic in style. Shifting emphasis away from institutions, I am fascinated by the first-hand testimonies shared by Deaf and disabled people through both written life stories and ‘oral’ histories.

Six placards balanced against a stone wall with a person standing on the right edge of the frame. Most placards are overlapping, with some reading ‘We want rights not excuses’, ‘Civil rights now’, ‘Rights not charity’ and ‘Absent MPs will be voting no to civil rights’.
Placards from the UK Disabled People’s Movement. The Disabled People’s Archive have kindly given permission to use this image from their collections.

This article reflects on capturing Deaf and disabled people’s histories and experiences, primarily through the practice of ‘oral’ history. ‘Oral’ tradition straddles different forms, from storytelling to poetry and song, and can be traced back to the ancient world as a means of preserving cultural heritage. Despite these long-standing roots, the development of ‘oral’ history as a field has proliferated since the 1960s in Britain, with the focus on a ‘history from below’ approach. In this way, ‘oral’ history has been identified as a means of recognising and valuing contributions from people who have historically been underrepresented from mainstream and academic spaces. For examples, when the Society for the Study of Labour History formed in 1960, it aimed to preserve the perspectives of working-classes through ‘oral’ histories. The Oral History Society was later established in the United Kingdom in 1973. Since then it has embraced the interconnected relationships between ‘oral’ history and ‘oral’ tradition, folklore, labour history and the diversification of women’s history in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as Black and ethnic minority histories, LGBT+ histories and the history of medicine.

According to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, ‘oral’ history focuses on five key themes: technique, sharing, preserving, original historically important information and personal recollections. In sum, ‘oral’ history interviews share information relating to personal experiences over a certain period or across a life span. These can be preserved in various formats (audio, video, transcript) and help researchers to develop further information, clarify, interpret or better understand historical events or time periods. I have chosen to use ‘oral’ in quotation marks to show the ambiguous language here, which might not include interviews with sign language users, non-speaking people and/or people who use non-verbal communication methods. This terminology can also be misinterpreted and be correlated with oralism, which is a sensitive, divisive and political topic amongst Deaf communities, often discussed in relation to the Milan Congress of 1880 when oral education was declared superior to manual education and led to the ban of sign language in education.  

‘Oral’ history testimonies can illustrate different ideas relating to individual perceptions, motivations, views and personality traits. This can help historians to move away from inward-looking institutional histories which might decentre the focus on lived experience or the perspectives of Deaf and disabled people. In addition, ‘oral’ history testimonies can sometimes be both challenging and provocative. They can reinforce themes of independence and political agency which have long been fought for within the modern developments of the British Deaf community and the Disabled People’s Movement in the United Kingdom, including the Independent Living Movement. For example, some Deaf and Disabled People’s Organisations (DDPOs), such as the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, have recorded community-based ‘oral’ history projects. These initiatives have spoken to the growth of self-advocacy in the United Kingdom as well as individual experiences of community and belonging, as shown by The Voices of Eastbank project, which worked with Deaf ethnic women from Deafroots.

Seven activists stood in front of a red GM bus to Altrincham. Three people protesting are wheelchair users, three people are wearing red ADAPT t-shirts and two people are wearing white ‘Rights not charity’ t-shirts.
UK activists protesting inaccessible public transport. The Disabled People’s Archive have kindly given permission to use this image from their collections.

Examples of ‘oral’ histories are varied and show the depth and possibilities for capturing Deaf and disabled people’s experiences, as demonstrated by the Bodleian Library’s Disability History Resources ‘oral’ history guide. Further examples, from the History of Place project (conducted in British Sign Language) to the Learning Disability History Project (Bradford Talking Media), illustrate the ways in which ‘oral’ history projects have covered a range of topics from architecture, specific areas, life stories, changes of social care system and experiences of healthcare. Similarly, Donna Ryan conducted interviews with Deaf Holocaust survivors, and David Gerber used ‘oral’ history to find out more about the experiences of World War Two veterans that lost their sight. These works demonstrate how ‘oral’ history can help to widen historical research, as well as re-establish important experiences and testimonies that have been overlooked in accounts or neglected in public memory. Some Deaf individuals and collaborators have also commented on the significant roles that Deaf perspectives and storytelling culture can have in public engagement and shaping ‘oral’ history practice. 

Whilst this article has focused on the possibilities and strengths of ‘oral’ history for capturing Deaf and disabled people’s experiences, it has not considered further methodological considerations and the barriers that may be disabling. As a deaf researcher, I have experienced some of its limitations and challenges, which I have written about in previous academic work, such as the ALISS Quarterly in April 2024. For example, I recognise the hearing-centred focus on audio quality (for preservation purposes), the considerations for access needs and communication preferences (including the dynamics of using sign language interpreters), as well as the use of technology, which may be inaccessible and create additional barriers. Similarly, access to ‘oral’ history interviews in the archives, for example, which are audio-only or without any notes or transcripts can make historical information impossible to analyse. Equally, identifying materials and useful collections with inaccessible website designs or confusing catalogues often further conceals existing collections and historical materials (including ‘oral’ histories) which gather the experiences of Deaf and disabled people.

There is an activist looking at the camera with two placards; on the left ‘Rights not charity’ and on the right ‘Disabled and proud’. There is a dark background and a sofa behind the wheelchair user.
An activist from the UK Disabled People’s Movement. The Disabled People’s Archive have kindly given permission to use this image from their collections.

Despite this, ‘oral’ history has the potential and scope to broaden the possibilities for historical research and to challenge the parameters of Deaf and disability histories. This practice can open up how we think about framing Deaf and disability histories, as well as focus on the person-centred approach of lived experience and claims to knowledge or expertise. As academic Dorothy Atkinson wrote in relation to learning disability research: ‘The silence is pervasive. With little or no recourse to the written word, their voices were seldom heard. The consequence is that much lived history in the form of personal experience of people with learning disabilities has gone unrecorded.’

The emergence of more recent ‘oral’ history project such as ‘Our Life Stories’ from United Response reflects the importance of amplifying disabled and autistic voices, rather than sources in the histories of learning disability and autism that focus on medical professionals or policymakers, as argued by Tilley, Ledger and de Haas. ‘Oral’ histories can therefore challenge power dynamics and provide opportunities for Deaf and disabled people to lead on research projects as well as choose whether or not to share their perspectives. Overall, ‘oral’ history can help to refocus attention away from clinical settings and medical descriptions and capture the diverse experiences of Deaf and disabled people, as well as their contributions to various social, political, cultural and economic spheres. After all, as archivists Ella Clarke and Luke Beesley highlighted, ‘disabled people are also black or LGBTQ+ people, Bristolians or Glaswegians, football fans or Dickens enthusiasts’. ‘Nothing about us without us’ is a strong and powerful slogan within the Disabled People’s Movement in the United Kingdom, and ‘oral’ history is one method for placing Deaf and disabled people’s experiences and perspectives at the heart of historical research.

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