Blog post

Nationalism and Deafness

Lennard J. Davis explores Deafness as nationality. 

Lennard J. Davis 8 December 2017

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, via New England Historical Society.

A landmark work in disability studies, Lennard J. Davis' Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body was published by Verso in 1995. "The very concept of normalcy by which most people (by definition) shape their existence," Davis writes, "is in fact tied inexorably to the concept of disability, or rather, the concept of disability."

...our construction of the normal world is based on a radical repression of disability, and that given certain power structures, a society of people with disabilities can and does easily survive and render "normal" people outsiders. The aim of the rest of this book is to show how and why this is so.

In the exerpt below, Davis considers Deafness — and disibility more broadly — as nationality.  

It is true that deaf-mutes of every country have no mother tongue.

                                                                                                             John Kitto, The Lost Senses (1845)

Up to this point, I have been arguing that disability is less of an object than it is a social process. And as a process, it is part of a hegemonic way of thinking about the body and about the insertion of the body into the body politic. Just as with issues of race and gender, the normal body is defined in a way that makes a distinction between the body an sich and the body für sich. The body as such is probably a Utopian idea, a vision of a pristine, univalent communication based on body language alone. The body for a purpose is certainly the rule in the early modern world.

Marx saw the body as essentially reified by the processes that came about as a result of the accumulation of capital in the eighteenth century. The nostalgic retro-fit vision presented by Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 was of an earlier period in which the body existed in sensuous relation to the world, inserted into that world and creating that world through labor. This vision, however romantic, seems to point to a kind of labor that was not easily distinguished from "life." The parameters of the body and its activities were seen as aspects of nature linked to the processes of natural activities and seasons.

One could go so far as to say that disability, in our sense of the word, did not exist in such a world. Of course, impairments existed, but the impaired body was part of a lived experience, and in that sense functioned. It was not defined strictly by its relation to means of production or a productive economy. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the body an sich had become the body für sich and the impaired body had become disabled — unable to be part of the productive economy, confined to institutions, shaped to contours defined by a society at large.

In this regard, it is possible to see the way that the disabled body came to be included in larger constructions like that of the nation. We have only to consider the cliché that a nation is made up of "able-bodied" workers, all contributing to the mutual welfare of the members of that nation.

In order to discuss how the concept of nationality fits into a concept of disability, it is first necessary to say what we mean when we speak of nations. It is commonplace to think of a nation as equivalent to various state or governmental groupings. But the question of nation has become vexed in recent years. As one political scientist puts it (Connor 1992, 48):

Where today is the study of nationalism? In this Alice-in-Wonderland world in which nation usually means state, in which nation-state usually means multination state, and in which ethnicity, primordialism, pluralism, tribalism, regionalism, communalism, parochialism and subnationalism usually means loyalty to the nation . . .

As opposed to a governmental entity, Walker Connor suggests that nation should be defined as "a group of people whose members believe they are ancestrally related" (ibid., 48). This definition allows us to rethink nation as something perhaps divorced from a self-evident entity represented by a flag (for which it stands), an anthem, a collective will. The simplicity with which Edmund Burke speaks of "the men of England" (1980, 200) or says "The people of England know how little influence the teachers of religion are likely to have with the wealthy and powerful of long standing" (ibid., 20I-2) shows us how powerful and homogenizing is the idea of national hegemony, eliding as it does in this case the particularity of the Scots, the Welsh, the Cornish, the Irish.

The idea of a nation as a governmental entity is further refined by contemporary scholars such as Benedict Anderson, Immanuel Wallerstein, Etienne Balibar, Hayden White, and Homi Bhabha, among others, who propose alternative ways of thinking about nationality. Anderson thinks of the nation as a manifestation of print culture. For him, the gradual honing of a group of people into readers of a common language creates the idea of a homogeneous organization. So it was "readers connected through print, [who] formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo for the nationally imagined community" (Anderson 1983, 47). Likewise, Homi Bhabha deconstructs nation and narrative, while Hayden White writes of histories as forms of fictive metanarrative that novelize a nation to itself. Wallerstein prefers to downplay national entities, seeing them as aspects of a world capitalistic system, whilst Balibar sees nationalism as a self-constructing, destructive set of ideologies, always in a state of flux, but always defining power structures.

This reassessment of nationalism changes the discussion so that groups of people who see themselves bound by a common language, culture, and narrative are defined as nations or nationalities. This redefinition allows for ethnic and religious minorities to claim national identity, and gender even comes into play, as Sylvia Walby notes, since women must be seen as a distinct nationality within a nation.

Perhaps one of the most concise definitions of nationality is to be found in a somewhat unlikely source — the writings of Joseph Stalin. His 1913 pamphlet entitled Marxism and the National Question outlines five features necessary for a group to consider itself a nationality. (1) a common language; (2) a stable community; (3) a territory; (4) economic cohesion; (5) a collective psychology and character. Stalin stresses that nationality should not be thought of as something tribal or racial in nature, as something essentialist, but as constructed through history. And inextricably connected to that construction is language. 1

But a nationality alone does not constitute a nation, as we can see in the struggles now taking place in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Nationality needs a political dimension. A nation, Stalin refines, "is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism and the development of capitalism was at the same time a process of amalgamation of people into nations" (Stalin 1934, 13). It is this historical development of the agglutinizing of heterogeneous peoples into the modern nation-state that took place in the eighteenth century as part of the process of increasing bourgeois hegemony that consolidated the idea of nation and the ideology of nationality.

As Benedict Anderson, among others, points out, the consolidation of national interests was very much involved with the enforcement of a common language on a heteroglossic group of peoples. "Nothing served to 'assemble' related vernaculars more than capitalism, which within the limits imposed by grammars and syntaxes, created mechanically-reproduced print-languages, capable of dissemination through the market" (Anderson 1983, 47). The novel, according to Anderson, was one step in the formation of national entities, yoking as it did images of national character, national language, and progress through structured time. Moreover, Edward Said has taken pains to show how novels help to construct national identities through normalizing imperialist attitudes toward "others" into narrative form.

In this chapter, I want to observe some of the features of this discourse of nationalism as it impacts on what I might call the nationality of Deafness, and by extension disability. As I have tried to show, the modern and postmodern redefinition of nation allows for groups of people claiming a community, a language, a common history and culture to assert themselves as nationalities. 2

At first blush, it might seem that deafness should be regarded as a social/medical phenomenon and as such would have little to do with the issues of nation and nationality. However, the issue of a common language is intricately involved in the way the Deaf were treated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and parallels can be drawn between that experience and the experience of other linguistically divergent groups in colonial settings. Instead of calling the Deaf a nationality, one might consider them as occupying the place of an ethnic group. In fact, Connor notes that the term "'ethnic' is derived from the closest equivalent to nationem in ancient Greek, ethnos" and as such is quite close in meaning to "nation" (1992, SS, note 1). Paul Brass places ethnicity within the realm of nationality, and defines an ethnic group as "any group of people dissimilar from other peoples in terms of objective cultural criteria language or dialect, distinctive dress or diet or customs, religion or race and containing within its membership . . . the elements for a complete division of labor and for reproduction" (1991, 19). Brass notes that "ethnic identity is itself a variable, rather than a fixed or 'given' disposition" (ibid., 3). By these criteria, the Deaf can be defined as an ethnic group or a nationality. If an ethnos is defined as a culturally similar group sharing a common language, then the Deaf conceivably fit that category.

The issue is by no means a simple one because the relationship between language and ethnicity is not monolithic. As Etienne Balibar points out, ethnicity is derived from two sources: language and race. "Most often the two operate together, for only their complementarity makes it possible for the 'people' to be represented as an absolutely autonomous unit" (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, 96). However, language is also the first ethnic trait to go by the board, since second-generation immigrants typically no longer bear the traces of their parents' accents or even their original language. In the United States now, second- and third-generation Italian-Americans, Jews, or Germans, for example, rarely speak their "native" tongues, although in the past Jews, for example, might have.

In the case of the Deaf, the issue of language presents itself as a defining structure of consciousness in quite a different way from the issues surrounding other disabilities. Unlike blindness or physical impairment, deafness is in some sense an invisible disability. Only when the Deaf person begins to engage in language does the disability become visible.The deaf can be thought of as a population whose different ability is the necessary use of a language system that does not require oral/aural communication. Within a nation, they represent a linguistic minority. There are certainly other disabilities that involve a difficulty or inability to communicate (aphasia, autism), but none of these impairments imply the necessity for another language. While the blind have Braille, Braille is not a language, but merely a way of transcribing whatever language the blind person may know. No one would claim that the blind have a language other than that of their mother tongue. As such, the deaf can be thought of as a group defined by language difference.

This point perhaps needs some further elaboration. It is commonly thought that deafness involves the inability to use language properly. If only deaf citizens could speak and understand English, there would be no problem for them or the larger community. Thus, deaf people are schooled arduously in lip reading, speech therapy, and the activities associated with the oral/aural form of communication. However, it is precisely this focusing on the dysfunctionality of the deaf that constitutes a privileging of the aural/oral system of communication. As Balibar writes, "the production of ethnicity is also the racialization of language and the verbalization of race" (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, 104). Because people are interpellated as subjects by language, because language itself is a congealed set of social practices, the actual dysfunctionality of the Deaf is to have another language system. That system challenges the majority assumption about the function of language, about the coherence of language and culture. Consequently, the Deaf are, in a sense, racialized through their use of sign language as a system of communication. They are seen as outside the citizenry created by a community of language users, and therefore ghettoized as outsiders.

But unlike other people with disabilities, also ostracized if not ghettoized, the Deaf have a community, a history, a culture; moreover, the Deaf tend to intermarry, thus perpetuating that culture. There is within the Deaf world a body of "literature" including written as well as signed works, a theatrical/choreographic tradition, academic discursive practices, pedagogic/ideological institutions, and so on. In this sense, the Deaf have created their own "nationalism" as a resistance to audist culture. This level of social organization, community, and resistance has not generally been achieved by other physically impaired peoples, although political consciousness and organizing have increased in recent years, and a body of literature is beginning to develop around the area of disability studies.

Ethnicity is, one can say, produced by a dialectical process in which a dominant group singles out a minority and ethnicizes its members; but reciprocally, minorities can ethnicize themselves in the course of trying to claim privileges and status from social elites. As de Vos says, ethnic identity is the "subjective, symbolic or emblematic use by a group of people . . . of any aspect of culture, in order to differentiate themselves from other groups" (1975, 16). If any aspect of culture can form the seed around which an ethnic community can coalesce, certainly the Deaf can be regarded as such. Furthermore, the formation of a group identity is both imposed from outside ("You are disabled: You are Deaf.") and from within ("We are Deaf!" "Deaf Power!"). So the site of ethnicity, as it were, is a contested one in a struggle for who will define the ethnicity of the group, who will construct it.

It is also possible to think of the Deaf as a race, that is, as a group carrying genetic information that affects physical traits and that can be passed down from generation to generation. One could argue that the concept of "race" is itself a product of imperialism, that to consider a people to be a race on the basis of some inherited trait was something that arose when it became necessary to think of humanity as divided into races. To think of the Deaf as a race is clearly to follow a dubious line of reasoning, but it is worth considering at least for the sake of argument. There are two senses in which the issue of racism can come into play here. The first would fit in with Colette Guillaumin's insistence on a broad definition of racism that would include exclusion based not just on ethnic groupings but on grounds of gender, class, sexual preference, and disability. The second would posit Deaf people themselves as constituting a race on the basis of inherited traits.

In relation to the latter, one must consider that there are two causes of deafness: one is inherited traits and the other is impairment caused by disease or accident. If we focus on the former, we can trace lines of inherited deafness, as does Nora Ellen Groce in her study of deafness on Martha's Vineyard. Since the trait for hereditary deafness is a recessive one, the idea of a deaf race is a bit farfetched. But many genetic traits, such as those for hair color, eye color, skin color, are considered racial traits because segregation or geographical isolation has forced those traits to remain within a specific population. As Immanuel Wallerstein suggests, "it makes little difference whether we define pastness in terms of genetically continuous groups (races), historical socio-political groups (nations), or cultural groups (ethnic groups). They are all peoplehood constructs, all inventions of pastness, all contemporary political phenomena" (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, 78-9).

Discussions of race have to take into account the historical determinants of race. In other words, the very concept of race is historically determined and can be considered the product of a particular historical period of development. As Wallerstein points out, "race was a primary category of the colonial world, accounting for political rights, occupational allocation and income" (ibid., 189). Theories of race became elaborated during the period of greatest imperialism; indeed it is hard to imagine a justification for imperialism without a theory of race. It is no coincidence that the eugenics movement impacted directly on deaf people at this time.

Eugenics only further emphasizes the connection between disability and racism. As Etienne Balibar notes, "the phantasm of prophylaxis or segregation (the need to purify the social body, to preserve 'one's own' or 'our' identity from all forms of mixing, interbreeding or invasion) . . . are articulated around stigmata of otherness (name, skin colour, religious practices)" (ibid., 18). The stigma of disability, of physical (and, in the case of deafness, inherited) traits, creates the icon of the other body — the disabled figure — an icon that needs to be excluded in a similar way to the body marked as differently pigmented or gendered.

This tendency toward prophylaxis, of course, is reciprocally one of the processes by which an ethnic group forms its own existence. Logically, as the Deaf were constructed into a group, institutionalized, and regulated, they perceived themselves to be such a group and acted as such. The very structures that are the equivalent to what Althusser identified as the ideological state apparatus — educational institutions, associations, newspapers, language — and even the desire of Deaf people to form their own state were pinpointed by the eugenicist Alexander Graham Bell as causes for alarm. He foresaw the development of these ideological apparatuses as leading to "the production of a defective race of human beings [which] would be a great calamity to the world" (Bell 1969, 41). Fearing the emergence of a "deaf variety" of humans and therefore seeking to discourage intermarriage among deaf people, Bell proposed that residential schools should be abolished, education through the medium of sign language should be forbidden, and the Deaf should be prohibited from teaching the deaf. These steps are reminiscent of the measures frequently implemented by colonial powers seeking to dismantle the culture of a nonnational or indigenous people.

It may be worth noting here that while a biological stigma must be part of an anti-disability discourse, it is necessary to consider the signification of physical traits. There may well be allegorical meanings ascribed to deafness, blindness, lameness, and so on. As Balibar says, "bodily stigmata play a great role in racism's phantasmatics, but they do so more as signs of a deep psychology, as signs of a spiritual inheritance rather than a biological heredity" (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, 24). Here, Balibar is speaking of the Jews, whose physical differences from non-Jews can often be indiscernible, yet paradoxically the more invisible the physicality of the Jew, the more dangerous the infiltration. The mark of circumcision, for example, is one of the most hidden of "disabilities," particularly during the periods when general circumcision of the male public was not the rule. To be a Jew then meant more symbolically than physically, although the symbolic and the physical were joined at the hip. Likewise, the deaf represent, among other things, the idea of moral and spiritual deafness, an inability to hear the word of God, an inability to participate in reason, and in life. Likewise, the blind are morally blind, and the lame inept. The body illustrates those moral precepts to be avoided in the culture. If, as Balibar suggests, much of modern racism derives from early anthropology's tendency to classify with an aim of making distinctions between humanity and animality (ibid., 56-7), then the deaf and the blind, as well as the mentally impaired and some of the physically deformed, will be seen as more animal, less human, than the norm. Animals are "dumb"; they cannot hear language; they are morally deaf and blind. Thus the "normal" majority can, through this classificatory grid, see itself as most properly human. In studying disability, we must keep in mind the significations of body, the language of deformity as it is encoded by the "normal" majority.

In order to continue the argument that the Deaf constitute a threat to ideas of nation, wholeness, moral rectitude and good citizenship, I must develop the material significance of the point made in Chapter 3, that deafness as a discourse first appears in the eighteenth century. Before the eighteenth century there were individual deaf people and families of the deaf, and in urban areas even loose associations of the deaf, but there was no discourse about deafness, no public policy on deafness, no educational institutions — and therefore the deaf were not constructed as a group. Since most deaf people are born to hearing families, the deaf themselves did not see themselves as part of a community unless they were part of an urban assemblage of the Deaf. It was only by attending the residential schools created in the eighteenth century that the deaf became a community. The dramatic rise in the number of deaf schools in Europe — there were none at the beginning of the century and close to sixty by the end — indicates the groundswell that made this new ethnic group self-aware.

Moreover, by the beginning of the nineteenth century there had developed a more or less standardized language of the deaf that was transnational. That is, sign language had regional variations but was basically a universal language. This language was disseminated through the deaf schools, and the teachers in these schools were themselves deaf. So an educational system evolved that consolidated the deaf into a community.

Thus, the Deaf became a new subgroup within each state throughout Europe; like Jews and gypsies, they were an ethnic group in the midst of the nation. Though their numbers were small, they still amounted to a linguistic subgroup that increasingly perceived itself as a community with its own history and culture. By Stalin's criteria, all the Deaf lacked to claim nationhood were a territory and economic cohesion. One might indeed make a comparison with, for example, the Russian Jews who were excluded from Stalin's definition of nationality because they lacked a territory, although the Bund claimed national status for them.

Douglas Baynton shows us that by the nineteenth century, the Deaf were regarded as foreigners living within the United States, a kind of fifth column in society resisting nationalization. Baynton quotes from the oralist publication the American Annals of the Deaf and Dumb which in 1847 described the deaf not as afflicted individuals but as "a strongly marked class of human beings" with "a history peculiar to themselves" (Baynton 1992, 221). Baynton concludes that "deaf people were not so much handicapped individuals as they were a collectivity, a people — albeit, as we shall see, an inferior one" (ibid.). While the audist establishment initially constructed the deaf person as a model inhabitant of the Enlightenment, a citizen in the world of print culture, it came to see deaf people, particularly those using the "foreign" sign language, as an ethnic minority with its own history and language that must be incorporated into the state and the nation. Educators were concerned that if deaf people "are to exercise intelligently the rights of citizenship, then they must be made people of our language." They insisted that "the English language must be made the vernacular of the deaf if they are not to become a class unto themselves — foreigners among their own countrymen" (ibid., 229). This was part of a larger argument for the suppression of sign language because it "isolated people from the national community" (ibid., 27).

Pierre Desloges in writing his book defending sign language is actually defending his nationality, if you like, from the hegemonic attempt to take away the native language of the Deaf. As we have seen, Desloges made an immediate equation between his deafness, his language, and his nationality:

As would a Frenchman seeing his language disparaged by a German who knew at most a few words of French, I too felt obliged to defend my own language from the false charges leveled against it by Deschamps. (Lane 1984a, 30)

The debate between oralism and sign is often seen as one that pits the hearing community against deaf standards, but I think the issue is sharpened if we think of it as involving a political attempt to erase an ethnic group. Like the ethnic groups who have lost their language and thus their existence as nationalities (the Cornish in the United Kingdom, the Frisians in the Netherlands, the Sorbs and Wends of eastern and central Europe), the Deaf were in danger of being wiped out as a linguistically marked community.

The Deaf were not unique in waging such a struggle. The Romanians had to establish their own press and print a grammar in 1780 to keep from being erased by the Transylvanians; the Bulgarians resisting the dominance of Greek Orthodox clerics in the eighteenth century took similar steps. (Brass 1991, 30). Moreover, in dominant nation-states foreigners and minorities, as well as the lower classes in general, were denigrated in cultural forms of symbolic production as a way of establishing national solidarity. One has only to think of the hundreds of examples of French people being ridiculed in English literature of the period (particularly Captain Mirvan's excoriation of all aspects of Madame Duval's Frenchness in Evelina), or of Cimarosa's ridicule of an English suitor's accent and, tellingly, of a deaf father in the Italian opera The Secret Marriage. Class accents would not do either, as a nation attempts to create a standard, printed, representation of the official language. 7

The nexus of deafness, class, and nationality achieved its most extreme form when Jane Elizabeth Groom proposed in the 1880s that the deaf should leave England and found a deaf state in Canada. Groom's reasoning was particularly related to class. She advocated founding a deaf state because the deaf in England were poor and could not compete with hearing people in a tight labor market. The answer could be not revolution, but secession. There was, in America, another movement to found a deaf state in the West.

The fact that some Deaf people wanted to found a separate state is a strong enough argument for seeing them as a nationality or an ethnic group. It is more than possible to consider the flexibility of the concept of nationality and to see the way in which the nation-state, in its formation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, elided various groups not normally thought of as national minorities — women, gays and lesbian, linguistic subgroups — in an attempt to make one nation out of many.

Having used the Deaf as a particular example to discuss the relationship of impairment to nationhood, now I would like to muddy the waters somewhat by introducing the idea of class. As Desloges's book emphasized, a strong connection exists between Deaf culture and working-class culture. Furthermore, there is a very deep relationship between disability in general and class. Mike Oliver in The Politics of Disablement: A Sociological Approach makes the point that "just as we know that poverty is not randomly distributed internationally or nationally . . . neither is impairment" (1990, 13). One expert notes that in the Third World "not only does disability usually guarantee the poverty of the victim but, most importantly, poverty is itself a major cause of disability" (Doyal, 1983, 7).

If it is the case that disability causes poverty, and that poverty likewise causes disability, since poor people are more likely to get infectious diseases, more likely to lack genetic counseling, more likely to be injured in factory-related jobs and in wars, and generally more likely to have a dangerous work environment, then we have to see disability as intricately linked to capitalism and imperialism, or the latter-day version of imperialism that shifts factory work to Third World countries and creates poor and rich nations to facilitate a division of labor. The distinction some might want to make between disability and poverty collapses at some level. For example, David Rothman in his account of the development of the asylum in the United States notes that in the colonial period the mentally ill were primarily seen as a category of the indigent. "The lunatic came to public attention not as someone afflicted with delusions or fears, but as someone suffering from poverty" (Rothman 1971, 4). Later, the first almshouses sheltered not so much the poor as the disabled poor. In the first such institution built in New York City, about half the population was composed of people with physical or mental disabilities, including those with age-related impairments (ibid., 39).

Class is not absent even in the broad classification of disability. For example, in the case of people who use wheelchairs, the paraplegic or quadriplegic, we need to consider that among the approximately 1 million Americans in this category, class and race figure largely. Injury to the spinal cord through accident is one of the most common causes of paralysis, and this type of injury occurs disproportionately among young, working-class men (Murphy 1990, 139). Particularly among the baby boom generation, those wounded veterans who returned from Vietnam make up a great number of wheelchair users, and they were largely drawn from the working class. The chief cause of traumatic paraplegia and quadriplegia in American cities now is injuries sustained from gunshot wounds — and most of the people so injured are drawn from the lower classes, particularly from people of color. Contact sports, job injuries, and automobile accidents still tend to draw their victims largely from young, working-class males (ibid., 139). So even "chance" and accidents fit a pattern involving class and race.

Industrialization re-created the category of work, and in so doing re-created the category of worker. The very idea of citizenship came to be ideologically associated with this kind of work, and various kinds of inclusions and exclusions in the category of nation were associated with work and work-related issues. Thus we see women initially bracketed out of the workforce and into the domestic sphere in middle-class life, while proletarian families were redistributed into the factory orbit. In effect, the imperatives of industrialism and capitalism redefined the body. Able-bodied workers' were those who could operate machines, and the human body came to be seen as an extension of the factory machinery. Ironically, this reciprocity between human and machine led to a conception of the mechanical perfection of the human body. The eighteenth-century notion that the human body was a divinely crafted machine led to a much more industrial interpretation of that insight so that the factory worker became a mere cog in the machinery. Likewise, the increasing mechanization of the body led to an increase of destructive acts against the human body in the form of factory-related mutilations. The machine, like a latter-day Moloch, demanded human bodies and transformed them into disabled instruments of the factory process.

Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, describes this necessary chain of transformation. "A number of cripples gave evidence before the Commission, and it was obvious that their physical condition was due to their long hours of work. Deformity of this type generally affects the spine and legs" (Engels 1968, 171). He cites a report by a Leeds physician, one Francis Sharp, who wrote as follows:

During my practice at the hospital, where I have seen about 35,000 patients, I have observed the peculiar twisting of the ends of the lower part of the thigh bone. This affection I had never seen before I came to Leeds, and I have remarked that it principally afflicted children from 8 to 14 years of age. At first I considered it might be rickets, but from the numbers which presented themselves particularly at an age beyond the time when rickets attack children, and finding that they were of a recent date, and had commenced since they began work at the factory, I soon began to change my opinion. I now . . . can most decidedly state they were the result of too much labour. So far as I know they all belong to factories, and acquired this knock-kneed appearance from the very long hours the children worked in the mills. (ibid., 171)

The report mentions varicose veins, spinal distortions, and deformities of the limbs. Engels himself corroborates these observations. "It is easy to identify such cripples at a glance, because their deformities are all exactly the same. They are knock-kneed and deformed and the spinal column is bent either forwards or sideways" (ibid., 173). Miners are described as "either bandy-legged or knockkneed and suffer from splayed feet, spinal deformities and other physical defects. This is due to the fact that their constitutions have been weakened and they are nearly always forced to work in a cramped position" (ibid., 280). Factory accidents contributed to this nineteenth-century, negative version of body sculpting. As Engels writes, "In Manchester, one sees not only numerous cripples, but also plenty of workers who have lost the whole or part of an arm, leg, or foot" (ibid., 185). Engels records that there were 962 machine-related injuries in Manchester in 1842 alone.

If Engels's work gives us an insight into the way the body was perceived in the nineteenth century, it becomes clear that industrialization was seen as a palpable force in quite literally reshaping the bodies of the body politic. Even the mind was seen as subject to the ills of a capitalist society. In 1854 Edward Jarvis attempted to explain to a Massachusetts medical society how the tensions of the free market led to mental illness.

In this country, where no son is necessarily confined to the work or employment of his father, but all the fields of labor . . . are open to whomsoever will put on the harness ... their mental powers are strained to their utmost tension; they labor in agitation . . . their minds stagger under the disproportionate burden. (cited in Rothman 1971, 115)

Jarvis notes that in precapitalist countries "these causes of insanity cannot operate" (cited in ibid.).

Repeated references to diminished physical size, lack of robustness, delayed puberty, mental illness, endemic disease, and physical deformity led to a collective realization that the nation was in peril as a result of industrial practice. The symbol of this problem was the deformed worker. Likewise, the technical solution to this problem was the breeding of a better, more robust national stock. The eugenics movement came into existence as a way of repairing the declining stock of England and America, a decline that was the result, as the eugenicists saw it, of a rapidly multiplying lower class and an influx of "foreign" peoples with lower intelligence, less physical strength, and greater licentiousness than the natives. 8

The relationship between disability and industrialization is a complex one. The argument has been made that in a preindustrialized society, people with impairments might more easily be part of the social fabric. In an unpublished dissertation, Martha L. Edwards argues that disability in ancient Greece did not limit the ability of men to fight or engage in wars. While no Utopia for the disabled, ancient Greek society provided an acknowledgement of human physical variety. There was a wide variety of physical variation, and one did what one could given one's ability.

In a similar vein, J. Gwaltney (1970) shows that blindness was not perceived as a disability in a Mexican village. Other works describe how deaf people were fully included in societies on Martha's Vineyard and in the Amazon in which most hearing members of the community could also sign (Groce 1985; Farb 1975). Thus the communal life and pace of rural society may not have constructed the disabled body in the way that industrialized societies did.

The blind and the deaf growing up in slowly changing scattered rural communities had more easily been absorbed into the work and life of those societies without the need for special provision. Deafness, while working alone at agricultural tasks that all children learned by observation with little formal schooling, did not limit the capacity for employment too severely. Blindness was less of a hazard in uncongested familiar rural surroundings, and routine tasks involving repetitive tactile skills could be learned and practised by many of the blind without special training. The environment of an industrial society was, however, different. (Topliss 1979, 1)

The demands of a factory system require another version of the body and another version of time:

The speed of factory work, the enforced discipline, the time-keeping and production norms — all these were a highly unfavourable change from the slower, more self-determined and flexible methods of work into which many handicapped people had been integrated. (Ryan and Thomas 1980, 101)

Another seemingly unlikely area in which we may connect disability with national identity and class was in the freak shows that began in the middle of the nineteenth century. Robert Bogdan in his book Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (1988) makes a rather interesting connection between physical disability and race when he notes that not only were the obviously disabled — the mentally delayed, the physically different — exhibited at freak shows, but also physically normal native peoples of colonized countries were exhibited grouped under the heading of "freaks." As one press agent for the amusement world noted, "The Borneo aborigines, the head-hunters, the Ubangis, and the Somalis were all classified as freaks. From the point of the showman the fact that they were different put them in the category of human oddities" (Bogdan 1988, 177). These people came from Oceania, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America and the Arctic, and the notion of racial difference put them in the same category as the disabled. As Bogdan says, "showmen took people who were culturally and ancestrally non-Western and made them freaks by casting them as bizarre and exotic: cannibals, savages, barbarians" (ibid.).

Some of those put on display in the United States were actually residents of the countries they were said to come from, but more often than not they were American-born individuals whose relatives had earlier come from those foreign locations. In 1872, for example, P. T. Barnum announced the appearance of four Fiji natives who were cannibals, including a princess. As it turned out, the three men had been brought up since childhood as Christians and lived in California, and the woman was African-American, a native of Virginia (ibid., 183). In such strange arrangements, people of color, disabled by society in so many ways, were transformed into non-Western natives who would then be seen as "freaks" and commodified as such.

The equation between people with disabilities and the non-Western worked both ways. Bogdan points out that beginning in 1850 and continuing through the 1940s, a pattern can be discerned in which "showmen constructed exhibits using people we would now call mentally retarded by casting them in an extreme form of the exotic mode" (ibid., 119). Such people were made to seem as if they were representative of other races or "missing links" in evolution. Two severely mentally impaired, microcephalic siblings from Circleville, Ohio, were exhibited as "Wild Australian Children" and said to be "neither idiots, lusus naturae, nor any other abortion of humanity, but belonged to a distinct race hitherto unknown to civilization" (ibid., 120). Hiram and Barney Davis, each approximately three feet tall and mentally impaired, were billed as "The Astonishing Wild Men, From the Island of Borneo." Maximo and Bartola, two microcephalic children bought from their parents in Central America were hawked as "The Last of the Ancient Aztecs of Mexico." Other microcephalics were exhibited as Aztecs because of their small heads and facial features. In the case of William Henry Johnson, an African-American microcephalic, the publicity projected this mentally impaired man as the "missing link" found in Gambia. Johnson, described as "What is It? or The Man-Monkey," was said to have been found in Africa "'in a perfectly nude state' roving through the trees like the monkey and the orangutan." His "keeper" is quoted as saying that "the formation of the head and face combines both that of the native African and the Orang Outang . . . he has been examined by some of the most scientific men we have, and pronounced by them to be a CONNECTING LINK BETWEEN THE VILD NATIVE AFRICAN AND THE BRUTE CREATION" (ibid., 137).

What is most interesting about this strange phenomenon is that the category of disability defines itself through an appeal to nationalism. The disabled person is not of this nation, is not a citizen, in the same sense as the able-bodied. That the freak show begins in the same period as we have seen statistics and eugenics begin indicates a change in the way people thought about the physically different. In addition, discussions of disability always slide into discussions of race. The connections we have discovered between non-Western people and disabled people — both in the simple sense of non-Western culture being seen as "freakish" and in the glib elisions made between microcephalics, non-humans, and the colonized world — show dramatically how similarly race, nation, and physical identity are defined. We might also add that the people who tended to make up the freaks, hoaxes or not, were drawn exclusively from the lower classes.

I want to end this discussion of nationality by looking at another disabled person, perhaps a kind of freak in this sense, who became a national symbol of identity. I am speaking of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A president of the United States has become more than a simple physical entity; he has become an icon of the power and vigor of the country. Much public relations time and effort is spent on making the man in office seem physically perfect and devoid of illness or disability. Countless photographs of a president golfing, jogging, romping on the beach emphasize his robustness and joie de vivre. Yet moments slip through the veil of well-being surrounding the president, and these moments are memorable in a disconcerting way. Who does not recall Carter collapsing during a running race or Bush vomiting into the lap of the Japanese prime minister? Johnson's revealing of his surgical scar was an unwanted reminder of his mortality. More profoundly, Eisenhower's heart attack and a series of assassinations and assassination attempts are reminders of the physical vulnerability of the person in office. 10 When Reagan survived an assassination attempt, the White House publicists covered up the extent of the President's injuries and the pain of his quite lengthy recovery. The unwillingness to show the public the autopsy photographs of Kennedy stems from, among other possibly conspiratorial reasons, an impulse to prevent the nation from visualizing the President as having a wounded, mutilated body or being physically damaged.

In fact, Kennedy had what we could certainly call a disability: Addison's disease. This debilitating and possibly life-threatening dysfunction of the adrenal glands was consistently managed by those who controlled public relations around Kennedy. The back pain was romanticized as stemming from war wounds received when Kennedy was the captain of PT 109. The President's rocking chair, used to alleviate the pain of his illness, was transformed into a rather evocative symbol associated with New England, the presidency, and the battle story. The fact that Kennedy was constantly medicated with painkillers was erased, and even the telltale puffiness of Kennedy's face, a side effect of long-term cortisone use, was forgotten.

But none of these attempts at management come close to the efforts that surrounded Roosevelt's disability. Roosevelt himself was made into a symbol of the triumph over physical disability, and his own story was seen as paralleling the USA's recovery and triumph from the Depression. Roosevelt's erect posture, his upturned face and jauntily held cigarette holder together were a symbol for America of hope, possibility, and recovery. Roosevelt's case is so interesting because he was the first president to be truly "mechanically reproduced," to use Walter Benjamin's term. His was truly the first media presidency, and his time in office spanned the heydays of photography, photojournalism, radio, and television. Although radio was in a sense the primary medium, Roosevelt had to control the medium of photography and film as no president before had needed to. In this sense, Roosevelt forged the visual image and aural identity of the presidency for the modern media.

Of the hundreds of thousands of photographs and films of Roosevelt, documented the period from 1928, when he became Governor of New York, until 1945, when he died in office, there are only two photos extant showing Roosevelt using a wheelchair. This archival evidence confirms the popular notion of Roosevelt — that he contracted polio, went to Warm Springs to recover, and then went on to become president. As Hugh Gallagher notes:

Roosevelt's biographers have tended to treat his paralysis as an episode — with a beginning, a middle, and an end. By their accounts, Roosevelt gets polio, struggles through his rehabilitation, and then overcomes his adversity. End of chapter. The handicap is not mentioned again. It is viewed only as one of the stages through which FDR passes in preparation for the presidency. (Gallagher 1985, 210)

The USA never had the facts about Roosevelt's polio. These, according to Gallagher's meticulously documented study FDR's Splendid Deception, were that Roosevelt became, as a result of polio, a paraplegic who after his illness never was able to move his legs or stand without assistance. This fact was well known to Roosevelt's family and friends. One visitor to Hyde Park wrote of Roosevelt in 1921:

He's had a brilliant career as Assistant of the Navy under Wilson, and then a few brief weeks of crowded glory and excitement when nominated by the Democrats for the Vice Presidency. Now he is a cripple — will he ever be anything else? (ibid., 28)

The writer of this letter expresses a common assumption — that the disability will become the person.

Roosevelt was determined that people should not define him in this stigmatized role, and he managed the reception of his image so that he would not be, in our terms, a disruption in the visual field. According to Gallagher, from the very first, Roosevelt was determined not to be seen in a wheelchair unless absolutely necessary, and not to be lifted up stairs in view of the public. This desire not to be seen as visibly disabled connects us once again to the realm of the senses — the visual sense in particular. We might link up this notion of the visibility of disability with the notion of the invisibility of nationalism. As Balibar points out, there is an assumption that true nationalism is invisible, a degree zero of existence, but that false nationalism can be seen. Thus we have "the alleged, quasi-hallucinatory visibility of the 'false nationals': the Jews, 'wogs,' immigrants, Blacks. . . . racism thus inevitably becomes involved in the obsessional quest for a 'core' of authenticity that cannot be found, shrinks the category of nationality and de-stabilizes the historical nation" (Balibar and Wallerstein 1991, 60). So, in this way, the visibility of the President's disability goes to the "core" of his national identity. Roosevelt saw that to be visibly disabled was to lose one's full nationality, which should be an invisibility, a neutrality, a degree zero of citizenly existence.

When Roosevelt addressed the Democratic Convention to place Al Smith's name on the ballot in 1924, he formulated a plan later used consistently.

He and his son James arrived early each day in order to get to their seats before the arrival of the other delegates. James would take his father by the wheelchair to the hall entrance closest to the seats of the New York delegation. At the door, Roosevelt's leg braces would be locked, and he would be pulled to a standing position. With James on one arm and a crutch under the other, he would slowly make his way down the aisle. At times he gripped James's arm so tightly that James had to concentrate to keep from crying out in pain. . . . [Roosevelt] did not leave the hall until the session had ended and the hall had cleared. (Gallagher 1985, 60)

Four years later at Houston, Roosevelt determined not to be seen with crutches. Eleanor wrote to him, "I'm telling everyone you are going to Houston without crutches, so mind you stick to it" (ibid., 63). Roosevelt solved the crutch problem by developing a new technique which he practiced for a month with his eighteen-year-old son Elliot.

Elliot would stand, holding his right arm flexed at a ninety-degree angle, his forearm rigid as a parallel bar. Roosevelt would stand beside Elliot, tightly gripping his son's arm. In his right hand Roosevelt held a cane. His right arm was straight and held rigid with his index finger pressed firmly straight down along the line of the cane. In this posture he could 'walk,' although in a curious toddling manner, hitching up first one leg with the aid of the muscles along the side of his trunk, then placing his weight upon that leg, then using the muscles along his other side, and hitching the other leg forward. . . . He was able to do this because his arms served him in precisely the same manner as crutches. (ibid., 65)

Roosevelt's system for walking was, according to Gallagher, "treacherous, slow, and awkward." Indeed, crutches would have been more sensible and safer. But Roosevelt wanted above all to be seen as a "cured cripple." In a rare reference to his own condition, Roosevelt mentioned his paralysis in a campaign speech during the 1928 race for governor of New York: "Seven years ago ... I came down with infantile paralysis. . . . By personal good fortune I was able to get the best kind of care and the result of having the best kind of care is that today I am on my feet" (ibid., 66). But he was on his feet only in the sense that he wore metal braces that could be locked into an upright position.

Roosevelt succeeded in convincing the world that he had beaten his disability. Will Durant's description of Roosevelt at the Democratic Convention in 1928, written for the New York World, makes us see an upright Roosevelt. "On the stage is Franklin Roosevelt, beyond comparison the finest man that has appeared at either convention. . . . A figure tall and proud even in suffering" (ibid., 67).

Rumors that Roosevelt was paraplegic did surface in the press. During his run for president, a Time magazine article quoted an observer as saying "This candidate, while mentally qualified for the presidency, is utterly unfit physically" (ibid., 84). An "objective" writer was hired by Roosevelt to say that Roosevelt's health was superb, and then thousands of reprints of the report were sent to each Democratic Party county chairperson in the country as well as to prominent Democrats everywhere. Georgia's governor, Gene Talmadge, brought the subject up again in 1935, saying, "The greatest calamity to this country is that the president can't walk around and hunt up people to talk to. . . . The only voice to reach his wheelchair were . . . cries of the 'gimme crowd'" (ibid., 96). Despite this rare mention of Roosevelt's disability, the President's visual presentation was so thoroughly controlled that the image that remained was the cigarette holder and not the wheelchair.

As president, Roosevelt used his wheelchair a good deal of the day. But he did not want the public to know this, and he lied in response to direct questions, as he did to one reporter who charged that Roosevelt was still "wheelchair bound."

As a matter of fact, I don't use a wheelchair at all except a little kitchen chair on wheels to get about my room while dressing . . . and solely for the purpose of saving time. (ibid., 92)

That little kitchen chair was in fact Roosevelt's own design for a wheelchair that would be streamlined, small, and unobtrusive, as opposed to the rather large sanitorium wicker chairs then currently in use. The Secret Service now became the agency that concealed Roosevelt's disability, and Washington became a ramped city. As Gallagher writes:

The White House imposed certain rules, which were always obeyed. For example, the president was never lifted in public. If it was necessary to lift him in or out of the car, this was done in the privacy of a garage or behind a temporary plywood screen constructed for the purpose. He was never seen in public seated in a wheelchair. Either he appeared standing, leaning on the arm of an aide, or he was seated in an ordinary chair. (ibid., 93)

The rule was that lecterns had to be bolted to the floor. At least once this was not done, however, and Roosevelt crashed to the floor. Although reporters were present, no one filmed the event or took pictures. On another occasion, when Roosevelt was being lifted out of a car, some newsreel cameramen were filming the event and Roosevelt said, "No movies of me getting out of the machine, boys" (ibid., 94). The Secret Service would intervene if any photographers attempted to take such photos, and they would seize and expose the film. This was official governmental action to erase any visual trace of the President's disability.

Roosevelt's car went everywhere up ramps constructed by the Secret Service. When he had to get into or out of his car, he was carried by two strong men. This carrying was the most disconcerting scene for many. John Gunther recalled: "The shock was greatest of all when he was carried; he seemed, for one thing, very small" (ibid.).

I have taken a bit of time to detail the extraordinary steps that Roosevelt and governmental agencies took to have the President seen as ambulatory. This deception was a two-way street, since neither Roosevelt nor the public wanted to see him as a "cripple." And the film industry, deeply implicated in the national sense of the body, after the end of the Second World War even made a film, entitled Till the End of Time in which a mother encourages her disabled veteran son to identify with FDR. The identification works so well that the son renounces his wheelchair and hides his prosthesis under his pants legs, just like FDR (Norden 1994, 320).

The sense of national identity associated with the President, and with the almost sacred nature of his body and physical presence, was paramount. If in the post-Depression USA every citizen had to get to work and build a better future, if the model of the able-bodied citizen was to be writ large on every Work Projects Administration mural, then the President had to embody normalcy, even if the efforts taken to create this illusion were Herculean. Since the disabled are a kind of minority group within the nation, it would hardly do for the President to be a representative of that minority group. In the perverse logic that marks the political imagination of the United States, only an aristocratic WASP could embody the aspirations of the working classes; only a physically intact man could represent those who were crippled by the ravages of an economic disaster.

The contested battle of Roosevelt's disabled body continues. In 1995 a controversy has arisen over the construction of a memorial to FDR (New York Times, 10 April 1995, A:10). Disability-rights activists are appalled that none of the memorial's three sculptures and bas-reliefs will show the former President with the wheelchair, crutches, braces, or canes that he used. The members of the memorial commission, headed by Senators Mark O. Hatfield and Daniel K. Inouye, and including members of Roosevelt's family, oppose any such representation, arguing that Roosevelt's elaborate avoidance of public representations of his disability indicate his wish to be seen as intact and normal. What resounds through this argument is the tenacity with which national images and identities are tied to notions of the body. More than half a century after Roosevelt's death, the specter of his "abnormal" body still needs to be exorcized so it will not haunt the nation's sense of its own wholeness and integrity.


1. Ironically, it was Mussolini who said, 'National pride has no need of the delirium of race" (cited in Stille 1991, 22).

2. So ethnic and linguistic minorities may consider themselves nationalities, and while women cannot claim separate nationality, they may consider themselves separately from the total national identity. As Trinh T. Minh-ha says of women having to choose between ethnicity and gender: "The idea of two illusorily separated identities, one ethnic, the other woman . . . partakes in the Euro-American system of dualistic reasoning and its age-old divide-and-conquer tactics" (Trinh 1989, 104). Fractionalized groups such as women or the Deaf shared certain features of nationality during a period of national consolidation in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

3. Harlan Lane makes a telling comparison between the colonization of Africans and the treatment of the Deaf (Lane 1922, 35-66). He particularly examines descriptions of both groups and shows how the deaf and the native African are constructed in similar ways.

4. It is ironic that, as a recent study shows, approximately 50 per cent of Americans are virtually illiterate in that they lack the skills necessary to write a simple letter or read a bus schedule (New York Times, 14 September 1993, A:1). Thus, the concept of a linguistic community exists really only in some kind of ideal form — at least at the level of writing and reading. One might better speculate on the degrees by which individuals are included or excluded from the ideal community of language users, rather than assume that all normal members of the community are users of language and all deafare not.

5. It is worth remembering that nationalism is a two-edged sword. It cuts a broad cloth out of divergent peoples and creates the pattern for imperialism and colonialism. However, nationalism in the Third World has been an important means of resisting domination by imperialist countries. (See Simon During, "Literature - Nationalism's other? The case for revision" in Bhabha 1990, 138-53.)

6. All three steps have in fact taken place. Deaf education in the nineteenth century was taken away from Deaf educators. Oralism was made official at the 1880 Congress of Milan. And more recently US educational policy has emphasized the mainstreaming of deaf children in hearing schools. This pattern coincides with an effort to nationalize other "non-national" populations by removing their own ideological apparatuses.

7. See Chapter 5 of my Resisting Novels: Fiction and Ideology.

8. This argument is made today again as if it were new thinking in three books: The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994) by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray; Race, Evolution, and Behavior (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994) by J. Philippe Rushton, and The Decline of Intelligence in America: A Strategy for National Renewal (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1994) by Seymour W. Itzkoff. All these works maintain that intelligence levels are declining since the members of the underclass, poor and disproportionately of color, are dragging the "norm" down by their rapid reproduction of low intelligence and social dysfunctionality. The wonder is that anyone thinks these arguments are any more than the old eugenicist saws brought out with very little resharpening.

9. The extent of the colonizing of these non-Western peoples included giving them names so that their "disabilities" might be identified. Thus the "Ubangi" women famous for their enlarged lips, achieved artificially by means of a tribal beautification practice involving the insertion of increasingly large disks into their lips, turn out to have not been "Ubangi" at all. These women were from the Congo, but the press agent for Ringling Brothers Circus, Roland Butler, was looking at maps of Africa and found an obscure district named Ubangi, several hundred miles from the tribe's actual location. The name sounded properly exotic and so, in Butler's words, "I resettled them. This act of renomination also represented their own beauty practices as 'freakish' disabilities. They were presented as 'Monster-mouthed Ubangi savages' and as 'Crocodile Lipped Women From the Congo' (Bogdan 1988, 193-4).

10. Paul Tsongas's cancer became an issue that detracted from his candidacy in 1992. Although he tried to commandeer the media coverage to show him Swimming every day, he was unable to beat the perception that he was disabled by his disease. More recently, Dan Quayle's complications from phlebitis had to be given some spin and could not be blamed in his decision not to run for president.

[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
Enforcing Normalcy
In this highly original study of the cultural assumptions governing our conception of people with disabilities, Lennard J. Davis argues forcefully against “ableist” discourse and for a complete rec...
Race, Nation, Class
Forty years after the defeat of Nazism, and twenty years after the great wave of decolonization, how is it that racism remains a growing phenomenon? What are the special characteristics of contempo...
Imagined Communities
What are the imagined communities that compel men to kill or to die for an idea of a nation? This notion of nationhood had its origins in the founding of the Americas, but was then adopted and tran...
Faces of Nationalism
Over the past few decades, Tom Nairn has become one of the most respected and provocative writers on questions of nationalism, British politics and the constitution. In his seminal essay, “The Mode...
Really Existing Nationalisms
Really Existing Nationalisms challenges the conventional view that Marx and Engels lacked the theoretical resources needed to understand nationalism. It argues that the two thinkers had a much bett...
In Theory
After the Second World War, nationalism emerged as the principle expression of resistance to Western imperialism in a variety of regions from the Indian subcontinent to Africa, to parts of Latin Am...

Filed under: disability, history, nationalism, weekend-read