In Netflix’s “Daredevil” series, a 2015 adaptation of a 1960s Marvel comic, flashbacks reveal that an accident blinding a boy also enhances his other four senses and gives him one more—radar location. That means the adult Matt Murdock can be a lawyer by day and a masked crime fighter by night, using his extra-sharp hearing, smelling, touch, and reflexes to brawl with villains he can’t see. In reality, a person with one impairment will have other talents and rely on different senses to navigate the world, but it’s never beyond the scope of natural human capacity. Disability scholars refer to such myths of super-human skills as a “fantasies of compensation,” which, like most of our popular beliefs about disability, come from the Victorian Era.
“Disability is a continuum, and it’s actually difficult to decide, legally, who is disabled and who is not.”
In fact, society didn’t have a concept of “lacking ability” until industrialization, which, by the 19th century, had created an obsessive demand for “able-bodied workers” who could rapidly churn out mountains of goods. Unfortunately, in the 1800s the sciences of biology and medicine hadn’t kept pace with advances in mechanical technology, so one infection or unfortunate encounter with a factory machine could lead to invalidism, loss of a limb, or early death. As people with disabilities became more visible and regarded as problematic, able-bodied citizens started to feel compassion for what they perceived as tragic lives. What to do with all these “unproductive” bodies?
Everyone had different ideas. Social reformers in the 19th century attempted to “normalize” people with disabilities through rehabilitation, education, and discreet new prosthetics. Inventors created all sorts of bizarre quack devices to help people “overcome” their disabilities. Certain educators even waged a war against sign language to force deaf people to learn how to speak like regular folk. Darwin-inspired eugenicists supported sterilizing anyone thought to have inherited undesirable traits, which physiognomists asserted could be read on one’s face or body. Many people with obvious physical disabilities and deformities still made a living by being gawked at and mocked in freak shows, while men with deformities but deep pockets raised their own esteem by joining Ugly Clubs, even as cities were starting to pass “ugly laws” against “unsightly beggars.”
Before industrialization, British scholar Lennard J. Davis asserts in his book, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, people with disabilities were an integrated part of their community, though subjected to regular ridicule. For example, according to Davis, in ancient Greece, people with physical or mental impairments were likely to be given tasks suited to their unique abilities or that accommodated their slower pace. So-called freak shows got their start in medieval Europe, where men with hunchbacks, dwarfism, or other physical or mental disabilities, who were considered “natural fools,” were hired to create comedy routines that played up their differences; some eventually became trusted advisors to royalty as court jesters. Even in the 18th century, it was socially acceptable to point and laugh at a person who looked or moved in an obviously different way.
When capitalism exploded in the 19th century, it created a middle class obsessed with “normalcy,” and as industrialization spread, Western society put an emphasis on the body as a means of production and productivity as a means to citizenship. Then, having a disability was seen as more sad than funny. Men who couldn’t work were thought to have more in common with women, while disabled women had a harder time fulfilling their gender role of getting married and having children.
“Preindustrial societies tended to treat people with impairments as part of the social fabric, although admittedly not kindly,” Davis writes, “while postindustrial societies, instituting ‘kindness,’ ended up segregating and ostracizing such individuals through the discursivity of disability.”
In her new book, The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel, Karen Bourrier—who is also the project director of the fascinating web site “Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts”—explores how men with disabilities were portrayed in the literature of the era. While these characters lacked the ability to be “strong men of industry,” their perceived weakness was thought to give them incredible insight.
“An Ugly Club member would be an object of ridicule on the streets, but a superstar within the sanctum of the club.”
“When I started reading Victorian novels about disability, I noticed a strong masculinity that would be able to take up the challenges of industry was a priority,” says Bourrier, who is an assistant professor of English at the University of Calgary. “But often the life story of the strong, self-made man is told through the perspective of a ‘weak’ or disabled male character to soften the contours of that kind of industrial masculinity. Often a character with a clubfoot or a hunchback has this terrible experience growing up. I’m thinking about Philip Wakem in The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, for example. It makes them feel excluded from society, but then, therefore, they’re more sensitive to other’s pain. That’s an idea that makes a lot of sense to us these days, but it was a switch from the 18th century when people might have viewed disability as just humorous.
“In the Victorian novel, a person with a disability often has all of these powers of observation, as a privileged spectator who can’t participate in other arenas of life,” she continues. “Disability study scholars call that a ‘fantasy of compensation,’ a stereotype that’s worrisome and pernicious. Literary critics of the era did ponder, ‘Why is there this saintly figure who’s directing the whole household from the couch and has special insight that seems to stem from his or her disability?’”
The disabled spinster cliché also comes up quite often in Victorian literature, but sometimes, Bourrier explains, the woman actually enjoys being released from her gender role, like in Dinah Craik’s novel, Olive. “In it, a woman is able to become an artist because she has a spinal deformity,” she says. “She figures she’ll never get married and may as well pursue her art.”
While Victorians didn’t use the term “disability”—they would use terms now considered offensive like “handicapped” or “crippled”—they applied a marginalizing “other” status to people with a wide variety of conditions, including blindness, deafness, invalidism, paraplegia, dwarfism, amputated limbs, mental retardation, undiagnosed autism, psychosis, clubfoot, and facial and spinal deformities. This is, in part, Davis explains, because the new science of statistics gave the average body real physical dimensions, and early Victorian culture celebrated the middle—a place where modesty and moderation indicated good morals and work ethic.
If a person didn’t possess the physical or mental ability to be a productive worker, they were seen as defective. That defectiveness was also thought to affect their character, sometimes poorly and sometimes positively, as Bourrier explores in The Measure of Manliness. Because physical appearance was believed to reveal a person’s moral compass and chances at success, even deformities that didn’t affect one’s ability to work were also seen as problems to be corrected.
According to “Nineteenth-Century Disability,” the Victorian era laid the groundwork for a belief system still operating today known as the “medical model of disability,” which “sees disability as a personal tragedy that needs to be fixed or overcome through medical intervention.” Seeing disability through a tragic lens, however, sparked interest in the experiences of people with disabilities and made them more visible in the 1800s.
“An industrial mentality saw workers as interchangeable and therefore sought to create a universal worker whose physical characteristics would be uniform.”
“The 19th century was the first to portray disability as the cause of individual suffering, and many disabled persons expressed their lived experiences in writing or art,” says Jaipreet Virdi-Dhesi, a researcher who contributes to “Nineteenth-Century Disability,” in an interview via email. “Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was deaf since childhood and an invalid for a few years; she shared her experiences in several essays, including her ‘Letter for the Deaf,’ in which she suggests conquering the ‘struggle’ over the constraints of deafness required first acknowledging the limitations of a deaf person’s social surrounding. British missionary John Kitto (1804-1852), deaf since age 12, was self-educated and wrote several books on religion and his travel experiences. American painter William Dunlap (1776-1839) painted a series of self-portraits depicting the permanent blindness in his right eye.”
As people with disabilities started telling their stories in the public arena, they also were photographed in ways that suggests their disabilities were crucial to their identity, explains Virdi-Dhesi, who has a doctorate in the history of science from the University of Toronto.
“Disabled persons were captured in photographs with the objects of their disability clearly presented,” she says. “Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726-1797) is depicted in a mezzotint holding an ear trumpet to his ear. A black-and-white photograph of Elizabeth Margaretta Maria Gilbert (1826-1885), the founder of the Association for Promoting the General Welfare of the Blind, shows her wearing a cape and shaded glasses. And amateur painter William Agnew (1846-1941), who was born deaf and mute, painted several scenes illustrating Queen Victoria conversing in sign language with a subject. These examples push forth the notion that disability in the 19th century was not always perceived negatively, to be hidden, or as though disabled persons were living in misery.”
Ear trumpets were among the myriad inventions that came out of the persistent belief that, even with the help of political or social institutions, it was the disabled individual’s responsibility to strive to become more “normal.”
“Having lost my hearing at age 4 following a serious bout of meningitis, my childhood was marked by my family’s attempts to cure my hearing loss,” Virdi-Dhesi says of growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s. “I recall the painful scent of burning chili peppers as a move to ward off the ‘evil eye,’ scores of visits to the temple for blessings, the chafing of copper bracelets possessing powers to extract the ‘disease.’ Among these attempts were visits to the ENT clinic, feelings of failure following hearing tests, the weight of hearing aids, and special speech lessons. Reading 19th-century medical case studies of all the attempts invoked to ‘cure’ a person of their hearing loss resonated through the passages of time and connects with me. I can sympathize with the patients, but I also understand the need for a ‘cure’ that was so tirelessly advocated by medical practitioners.”
On the plus side, useful Victorian inventions such as Braille, wheelchairs, typewriters, phonographs, and advancements in prosthetics offered people with disabilities more mobility, autonomy, and access to education.
“Braille was invented in the 19th century, and the phonograph, invented by Edison in 1877, gave the blind a way to listen to books and be more independent, even though it was not necessarily made for them,” Bourrier says. “The typewriter also became commercialized, in the 1860s and 1870s, so you could write a letter if you were blind. There were huge improvements in prosthetics, in part due to the Civil War in the U.S. Apparently, prosthetic eyes also weren’t very convincing before the mid-19th century, but they got a lot better, and that helped people who’d lost an eye become less stigmatized.”
Inventors also came up with many aids to hearing by studying the anatomy of the ear and exploring scientific principles of acoustics, Virdi-Dhesi says. “Some of them were brilliantly constructed, even designed to be camouflaged as ordinary furniture or hidden on the person,” she says. “There was an ‘acoustic headband,’ with a porcelain flower painted white and blue, and a hidden ear trumpet beneath the flower—it was designed to be disguised in a woman’s bouffant hairdo. There are ear trumpets designed as walking canes, so a gentleman could simply bring the cane up to his ear when he needed to. Most trumpets and aids were pretty standard in the 19th century—designed to increase hearing amplification through funnels, but the shape and weight of these aids depended on the user, as did their degree of success. A person with moderate hearing loss, for instance, could have their hearing increased by 20 dB with the use of a bell-shaped trumpet.”
But this push toward “normalization” also created what disability scholars call the “overcoming narrative,” which puts undue pressure on people with disabilities to excel despite their impediments.
“Often the life story of the strong, self-made man is told through the perspective of a ‘weak’ or disabled male character.”
“Simply put, the ‘overcoming narrative’ is this cultural idea that a person must overcome any limitations that set them back or prevent them from achieving success,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “For the most part, this requires ‘masking’ the disability to appear as ‘normal’ as possible, or managing to do ‘normal’ things in order to ‘fit in’ with the rest of society. For deaf persons, this means to adopt technologies that allow them to hear, or to learn how to lip-read and articulate sounds, rather than using sign language, which draws attention to their status as a deafened person. For individuals with amputated limbs, this requires the use of prostheses to camouflage their disability, especially the use of prostheses that enables them to do ordinary things, such as use a fork, tie a shoelace, and so on.”
Quack doctors in the 19th century also subjected disabled people to plenty of inventions that just didn’t work, particularly devices that used new technology such as violet rays, electricity, and vibrations as well as strange orthopedic apparatuses and patent medicines that promised miraculous cures.
“The closing years of the 19th century and the early 20th century introduced a tremendous amount of interesting and quackish hearing devices, such as the artificial eardrums, tiny devices made of metal or rubber and inserted into the ear to increase residual hearing,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Many of these devices were experiments with the new marvel of electricity. Galvanism was a well-known remedy in cases of deafness that were diagnosed as paralysis of the auditory nerves; treatments required applying electricity to the ear in order to simulate ‘dead’ ear muscles.
“Similar principles were governed in the Electro-Vibratory Cure for Deafness, a device invented and marketed by Dr. Guy Clifford Powell of Illinois in 1905,” she continues. “The apparatus apparently cured a patient of deafness by pumping air through the ears via cotton-covered electrodes soaked in salt water. After pumping in air, a jolt of electricity generated by the solenoid coils is sent to the patient’s head. Two Electro-Magneto Storage Cells batteries were placed inside the top cover. Several patented devices made use of violet-ray therapy, believing that ultraviolet rays could cure damages in the ear or ‘build-ups of calcium.’ Vibrating therapy was a popular design for apparatuses to cure deafness; some were advertised as ‘tissue oscillators.’ The rare battery-powered Violin Vibraphone—which used sound frequencies to stimulate ‘frozen’ inner-ear ossicles—is perhaps the strangest instrument I’ve ever come across!”
“Freak shows seem to be a way for communities to define who’s normal and who’s not, and assert those values in a troublesome manner.”
For deaf people in particular, the drive for normalization also held them back. Sign language, which Western societies developed in the early 18th century, helped deaf children communicate with their hearing family and friends, who may have never tried to communicate with deaf people before, Bourrier explains. But in the 19th century, American telephone-inventor Alexander Graham Bell led a movement to force deaf persons to give up sign language, which he insisted wasn’t a language, and learn how to speak, controlling the shape and volume of the sounds they made. He believed that “this capacity to speak is what makes you human and separates you from the animals,” Bourrier says. “These pernicious arguments made things worse for the deaf in the 19th century.”
In her research, Virdi-Dhesi has looked into why this cultural shift happened. “While the 18th century and first half of the 19th century was marked with a steady increase in the popularization of sign language as a mode for communication with the deaf, and the establishment of residential schools for the deaf, things changed after the 1850s,” she says. “As deaf persons from across America became integrated into a ‘Deaf culture,’ with a common language and community, they no longer felt isolated. Organizations, employment, events, and even newspapers for the deaf were created, further solidifying a sense of belonging and community. However, as Deaf identity and culture was coming into fruition, the deaf were in danger of being isolated from another vision of America. In her book, Words Made Flesh, R.A.R. Edwards shows how education outlined on the Prussian model of practicality and efficiency was believed to be the cure for all of America’s problems, from poverty and crime to disease, and ignorance. Tying Americans under a common culture would unify the country under the same nationalistic banner. And that included the Deaf, who had to learn English, rather than sign language, and share in the same oral culture.”
This led to a “war” between sign-language advocates, known as “manualists,” and the “oralists,” who pushed for speech and articulation. “By the 1870s, this shift additionally coincided with newer scientific theories, especially Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection—signing was reminiscent of ‘ape-like’ behavior, crude and below the parameters of human reason,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Fierce debates amongst educators for the deaf questioned the value of sign-language: Was it beneficial for introducing the deaf-mutes to ideas of the world, giving them tools for constructing knowledge and understanding in order to assimilate themselves into ‘normal’ society? Or was it isolating them from the common culture by creating a sense of comfort incomprehensible by others? Oralists rejected sign language as primitive and argued that sign language should be removed from all schools and replaced by emergent sound and writing technologies, in order to teach deaf students to speak and understand English.”
“An ‘acoustic headband’ was designed to disguise an ear trumpet in a woman’s bouffant hairdo.”
In 1880, educators from around the world came together in Milan, Italy, for the second International Congress on Education of the Deaf where they debated a resolution on banning sign language in schools and replacing it with oral instruction. “Even though sign language and its earlier variations of ‘finger-spelling’ were used since the 1600s, delegates voted to ban sign language as a mode of instruction,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “A historic event, the ban had a significant impact on the education and culture of the deaf. It was devastating. Deaf teachers lost their jobs to hearing teachers for the deaf. Sign-language instruction was forbidden. And as historians have shown, the congress was biased from the start, as more than half of its delegates were well-known oralists; furthermore, out of 164 delegates, only one person was deaf. Almost all deaf schools used the oral method by 1920. Even as sign language was banned in classrooms, it still flourished in communities and was supported by the National Association of the Deaf. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that sign language returned to the classroom.”
For people with physical deformities, some of the medical interventions to normalize people put them in danger, too. “There was a group of doctors starting in the 1830s in France and in Germany who decided that they were going to start operating on ‘orthopedic deformities,’ which they defined as any and every asymmetry in the human body,” Bourrier says. “So it could have been like a clubfoot or a harelip or a spinal problem, all these deformities that may not necessarily have been causing people all that many problems. In some cases, the surgery actually caused more harm than good. The idea was that they were going to operate by splitting the tendons and straightening them out, but it was risky to operate before the development of antisepsis in the end of the 19th century. People would get gangrene sometimes, and the surgeries weren’t all that successful.”
The emphasis on looking normal also fed into pseudo-sciences like physiognomy and phrenology, which, respectively, associated types of facial features and skull measurements with moral character and criminality.
“It is not the person with a disability who is defective, but the society that builds the world around one standard kind of body.”
“Phrenologists reinforced the medicalization of disability, the idea that disability was a medical problem that could be solved through the application of science and invasive treatments,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Concerned with the functions of the brain, phrenologists believed that the shape of an individual skull can reveal the person’s morality, personality, and other intellectual characteristics, as placed on their brain. As the founder of phrenology, Franz Joseph Gall believed one’s madness, criminal nature, or moral deviance could thus be ‘read.’ More so, phrenologists argued that the shape of the cranium was correlated to one’s intelligence, and certain races had differently shaped craniums, thus accounting for their lower position on the hierarchy of race supremacy. The idea of brain localization was a powerful science and used to justify an abundance of discriminatory atrocities against disabled persons.”
British statistician Sir Francis Galton first pushed to establish the normal or average body as ideal. He also employed a method of composite photography to layer images of different faces on top of one another to determine the average face. His goal was to deduce physiognomic traits that would reveal a person’s state of health or criminal tendencies. But after Galton read 1859’s On the Origin of the Species, by his half-cousin Charles Darwin, Galton began to reject averageness or mediocrity in favor of the survival of the fittest. He developed a science about perfecting the human race, known as eugenics, in 1883.
In eugenics, the most average traits were no longer the most desirable; instead, one extreme, like tallness or high intelligence, would be the most ideal and the other extreme, like shortness or low intelligence, the least. Since evolution theory posited that such traits are hereditary, eugenicists pushed to sterilize or prevent those with unwanted characteristics from having children. (Eugenics remained a well-respected science in the United States and Europe until the 1930s when Adolf Hitler adopted it for a campaign of genocide.)
“Treatment included the use of domestic rituals, such as tea parties and gardening, in order to reinforce social norms of good manners.”
During the late 19th century, “eugenics became obsessed with the elimination of ‘defectives,’ a category which included the ‘feebleminded,’ the deaf, the blind, the physically defective, and so on,” Davis writes, explaining that “fitness” became a national concern in Great Britain. “If individual citizens are not fit, if they do not fit into the nation, then the national body will not be fit … as if a hunchbacked citizenry would make a hunchbacked nation. … This belief combined with an industrial mentality that saw workers as interchangeable and therefore sought to create a universal worker whose physical characteristics would be uniform. … One of the central foci of eugenics was what was broadly called ‘feeblemindedness.’ The term included low intelligence, mental illness, and even ‘pauperism,’ since low income was equated with ‘relative inefficiency.’ Likewise, certain ethnic groups were associated with feeblemindedness and pauperism.”
The idea that you could read someone’s character by reading their body played out in literature, too. “In addition to the sympathetic view of disability, which is the one I concentrate more on in my book, in the Victorian novel, a physical deformity can be a shorthand for a villain,” Bourrier says. “Quilp, the hunchback dwarf in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, or Silas Wegg, who has a peg leg in Our Mutual Friend, would be good examples of someone who’s seen as villainous because of his disability. I think that comes from 19th-century theater, because it was a quick visual to suggest this person is evil.”
In fact, the term “degenerate,” meaning an immoral person, comes from the idea that evolution could go in reverse, so that a criminal’s corruption would manifest in his body in some way. “People like Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso started taking photographs of criminals to see if they were degenerating physically,” Bourrier says. “Because if Darwin had proved that we could evolve forward, maybe we could go backward as well. Again, it’s this terrible idea that who you were was marked on your body and could be legible to people in some way.”
“Disability in the 19th century was not always perceived negatively, to be hidden, or as though disabled persons were living in misery.”
While eugenicists promoted sterilization, more compassionate social reformers and philanthropists put their energy into making people with disabilities productive members of society. “The nineteenth century was an age when people self-consciously boasted about philanthropy,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Charities became popular avenues for the lay public to demonstrate their moral and social values as a way of contributing to national responsibility. Many institutions were directed toward the goal of ‘normalizing’ defective or disabled bodies, in order to eventually integrate them into society as productive citizens, or else isolate them within secured gates. These institutions were based on the predilection that there existed a clear boundary between the ‘normal’ and the ‘pathological.’ Medicine was directed toward dealing with the body, whereas ‘moral therapy’ was directed toward dealing with the mind.
“Institutions for the deaf in Britain emerged as part of a wider evangelical movement for social reform,” she continues. “Beginning with John Townsend’s Asylum for the Support and Education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor (informally, the Bermondsey Asylum) in 1792, residential institutions for the deaf grew exponentially. These institutions claimed that the deaf were capable of communication, and thus, worthy of education, and were driven by a missionary zeal that constructed education as a charitable enterprise. Relying upon private benevolence and public donations, these institutions advocated intellectual development, religious instruction, and material well-being, directed toward protecting the deaf until they were trained to venture or assimilate into society.”
Then, as now, the level of comfort and access to new technology a person with a disability experienced depended on his or her wealth. Those with physical or mental impairments in the higher classes were whisked away to elegant country institutions that resembled spas or vacation resorts. Some of these places, like J. Langdon Down’s Earlswood Asylum, which specialized in Down’s syndrome care, offered education or at least basic literacy. But if you were impoverished and mentally ill, you often got locked up in a brutal asylum that was more like a jail.
“Institutions for the ‘mad’ offered a sense of care that left individuals in a comfortable and accommodating space in order to allow their bodies to recover,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Most of these institutions were privately managed and for the wealthy. Treatment included the use of domestic rituals, such as tea parties and gardening, in order to reinforce social norms of good manners. The Royal Hospital for Incurables was one such private charitable institution, offering treatment for both the disabled and those with long-term illnesses. The Holloway Sanatorium was another ‘resort’ for rest and recovery for caring for the middle-class insane. But madhouses such as London’s Bethlem Hospital, the York Asylum, or the Brookwood Asylum create a more sinister picture of institutionalized care for mental illnesses: They were dumping grounds for unmanageable family members or workhouse employees, for hysterical women, for violent and mad persons. These people were subjected to invasive and horrendous medical treatments, confined into hydrobaths, chained to walls or beds, and otherwise restrained.”
A person who was impoverished and obviously disabled but not seen as threatening might end up begging or selling shoelaces on the street. But there was another way to survive: As much as Victorians saw themselves as enlightened by progress, science, and social reform, they still paid to gawk at people they found strange at freak shows. Steam-powered trains and ships guided by improved navigation systems were allowing Western adventurers and scientists to explore the previously unknown parts of the world. People were excited to gather natural wonders and marvels as well as travel souvenirs for their personal cabinets of curiosities. World’s Fairs celebrated the achievements of industry and design and brought diverse cultures together. But the shadow side of all this earnest curiosity is the fact that humans, particularly dark-skinned Africans, were regularly kept like animals at zoos in Paris, Hamburg, Antwerp, Barcelona, London, Milan, Warsaw, and New York at the same time other Africans were kidnapped, shipped to the American South, and treated as beasts of burden at slave plantations. The people who were visibly disabled or disfigured provoked the same sort of rubbernecking intrigue as people with dark-pigmented skin.
“Spearheaded with a rising interest in biology and classification, people became curious about physical and organic differences between humans and animals,” Virdi-Dhesi says. “Deaf persons were certainly perceived as cause célèbres, as theatrical spectacles. Some persons with disabilities found success by acknowledging, and showcasing, their disability or deformity. Joseph Carey Merrick, known widely as the ‘Elephant Man’ supported himself by joining traveling freak shows and displaying his deformity. He became a celebrity and received the support of rich benefactors later in his life, but they still required him to display his deformities. For many, these shows were preferable to begging and becoming destitute.”
But freak shows also contributed to harmful social constructions about who’s an outsider to be ogled, involving racism and sexism as much as ableism. Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman, also known as “the Hottentot Venus,” was a black able-bodied woman who was sexualized in freak shows for her large posterior. “Such shows seem to be a way for communities to define who’s normal and who’s not, and assert those values in a troublesome manner,” Bourrier says. “Blind Tom, who was black, blind, and probably autistic but a piano prodigy, was exhibited in a freak show.”
However, if a white man who had a physical deformity or who just wasn’t conventionally attractive had enough money and power, he could achieve a certain amount clout by joining a type of fraternal organization known as an Ugly Club. “The first person who wrote a memoir of being physically disabled was a member of Parliament called William Hay, who had a hunchback,” Bourrier says. “In 1754’s ‘Deformity: An Essay,’ he talks about being hooted at on the street and Ugly Clubs were sort of a response to that. They survived throughout the 19th century. It does bring up the idea that disability is a continuum, and it’s actually difficult to decide, legally, who is disabled and who is not.”
Ugly Clubs rejected the dogma of physiognomy, which said facial features revealed one’s character. “The Ugly Face Clubs, gentlemen’s clubs whose members prided themselves on their facial eccentricities, are a perfect example for how deformity was juxtaposed with social exclusion: a member would be an object of ridicule on the streets, but a superstar within the sanctum of the club,” Virdi-Dhesi says.
However these clubs did perpetuate the stigma that equated disability with ugliness, which eventually pushed disabled people out of public spaces. In the late 19th century, cities and towns around the United States passed laws banning “unsightly beggars.” In The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, Susan M. Schweik investigated how such laws criminalized people with disabilities.
These laws stayed on the books until the 1970s, when lawmakers started to relent to pressure from the disability rights movement, which rose in the 1960s along with the civil rights, gay rights, and women’s liberation movements. Disability rights activists campaigned to replace what they identified as the medical model of disability with a new “social model of disability” which, according to “Nineteenth-Century Disability,” “argues that it is not the person with a disability who is defective, but the society that stigmatizes physical difference and builds the world around one standard kind of body.”
It wasn’t until 1990 that the Americans with Disabilities Act, which made it illegal for employers to discriminate based on disability, was signed into law in the United States. The law—which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month—requires schools, businesses, and public buildings to install accommodations such as wheelchair ramps, wheelchair-accessible door handles and restrooms, and Braille signage. Television programs, for example, are obligated to provide captioning for the hearing impaired. For the first time, American society was forced to change, as opposed to the people with disabilities shouldering the burden of adapting.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act is an enormous improvement for people with disabilities,” Bourrier says. “And medical technology has done a lot to improve the lives of people with disabilities in the 20th and 21st centuries. But I also think that in some ways, because the Victorians lived with so much disability, they might have had a more fluid and compassionate understanding of it. Today, if we’re able-bodied, we tend to think of disability as something that will never happen to us. But the truth is we’re all, scarily enough, one car accident away from becoming disabled. Victorians might have had a better understanding of the fragility of the body.”
“Phrenology was used to justify an abundance of discriminatory atrocities against disabled persons.”
Today, as it was then, money determines whether, say, a double amputee ends up using a skateboard to beg on the street or has access to the most advanced motorized wheelchairs or prosthetics. And we still celebrate narratives of overcoming and compensation—think of any sports drama like “The Karate Kid,” in which the title character goes on to win the karate tournament in spite of a seriously injuring his foot. Politicians that promote the idea of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” are eager to cut public funding for disability checks and health care, because any challenge can be overcome with a can-do spirit, right? According to compensation stories like “Daredevil,” you might even have special powers that give you an advantage.
“We still have the overcoming and compensation narratives today, and they aren’t very helpful,” Bourrier says. “The more you look at the Victorian era in the present day, the more you see the way we regard people with disabilities today is not that different. What’s so interesting about the Americans with Disabilities Act is that it gives disability rights to people who have all sorts of conditions—like morbid obesity, clinical depression, ulcerative colitis, work injuries, or heart disease—that we wouldn’t necessarily traditionally see as a disability. It’s anything that impairs your day-to-day life. Most people eventually have a condition like that.”
(Learn more at “Nineteenth-Century Disability: Cultures and Contexts.” For further reading, pick up Karen Bourrier’s new book “The Measure of Manliness: Disability and Masculinity in the Mid-Victorian Novel”; Lennard Davis’ book “Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body”; Susan M. Schweik’s book “The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public”; and R.A.R Edwards’ book “Words Made Flesh: Nineteenth-Century Deaf Education and the Growth of Deaf Culture.” Explore the history of medicine at the Wellcome Library’s web site.)