Sunday, August 23, 2009

Disability In Literature

By Samuel Miller

(For Professor Marsha Hewitt, with deep appreciation)

Literature is a principal source of the stereotypes called up by the very names of many disabilities in popular imagination. From early childhood, we enjoy fairy tales about deformed, wicked witches, blind beggars, giants who are embodiments of stupid brutality, and dwarves full of cunning trickery and craftiness.

Disabled characters in fiction and drama have included grotesque villains--psychologically as well as physically warped--pathetically cheerful recipients of charitable bounty, and heroic victims of circumstance struggling against overwhelming obstacles of poverty.

These pictures are so familiar and so vivid that we sometimes forget their principal purpose is to serve as visual images of moral qualities, rather than realistic representations of the part disability actually plays in everyday life.

Most of these stereotypes were created by authors who were not themselves disabled, and who derived their knowledge of disability from observation of persons who, all too often, were regarded as outside the normal framework of society.
It is only in very recent times that blind, deaf or physically disabled people have come to be depicted in literature as persons in their own right, rather than as objects of loathing, pity or the benevolence of others.
With such stereotypes of the disabled commonplace in literature, it is hardly surprising that writers who happen to have disabilities have, by and large, refrained from either identifying themselves, or depicting the experience of disability.

In some cases, the disability of the writer is well known, as with the blindness of Homer and Milton. But it is usually taken for granted, and only rarely have their works been searched for evidence of possible relationships between their impairment and their art.
Indeed, because few works about disability by disabled persons are well known, there has been little basis for determining when a depiction of disability is consistent with fact, and when it is pure fantasy.
Nor have literary representations always kept pace promptly with changes in the social role of disabled persons--from outcasts, to recipients of charity, to responsible adults independently managing their own lives.
As disabled writers come into their own, they are beginning to provide us with reference points for correcting these misconceptions, and passing beyond them to a more creative, imaginative and realistic understanding of the significance of disability.
A few random examples will illustrate how the conception of disability as a subject and of the disabled author, have differed in the literature of various periods of Western civilization.
In Greek mythology, physical impairment was often compensated by some unusual mental gift, so that the lame Hephaestus becomes the master smith, and Tiresias, deprived of sight, receives prophetic vision. Oedipus inflicts blindness upon himself as a fit punishment for his unwitting offense against the laws of the gods, but after years of suffering and remorse, he too is endowed with second sight.

Tradition maintains that Homer, the greatest of Greek poets, was blind, and despite all uncertainties, one may wonder if such epithets as "wine-dark sea" might reflect a blind man's perception of colour in terms of taste and touch.

Likewise, could there be a reflection of Aesop's reported lameness in his fables, in the frequent victory of the small, weak and crafty over the big, strong and physically fit? And, though Aristotle identified intelligence with speech and asserted that the deaf could not be taught, this cannot always have been true, for the Roman author, Pliny, mentioned a deaf painter, Quintus Petius.

Views of disability in the Bible are important, not merely as evidence of the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews, but because they have greatly influenced the attitudes of Christians in ancient, medieval and modern times.

In the Old Testament, disability is often a punishment for sin, as in the plagues of Egypt, the blindness of Samson, the leprosy of Naaman and Hezekiah, and the madness of Nebuchadnezzar. Job is depicted as a good man, whose physical ailments are temptations sent by the Devil to test the limits of his endurance and his reliance on the mercy of God.

The New Testament presents the lame, the halt and the blind as recipients of the miracle of healing, thus adding a dimension of compassion to attitudes toward disability.

This point of view is continued in the religious literature of the Middle Ages, where persons with the most loathsome diseases are often healed by the prayers of the saints. Other saints are lauded for their heroism in tending lepers and victims of the plague, which--since these maladies are highly contagious and were then usually fatal--indeed often required sacrifice of their health, or even their lives.

Renaissance authors begin to depict the inner feelings of characters with disabilities, as when Shakespeare's hunchbacked Richard III declares that he deliberately became a villain to revenge himself upon the world for his sense of isolation and inferiority.

Other writers recorded descriptions of persons with various disabilities, and scientists began to discover means of treating them--eyeglasses to treat certain types of visual impairments was one such invention.

Biographers of several of the Medici, for example, mention their weak eyes, and painters depicted not only their spectacles, but certain characteristics of the eyes, which reveal them to have been very nearsighted.

John Milton, after losing his sight, perhaps to a pituitary tumor, became England's Homer, combining traditions of Scripture history, medieval mystery plays and classical epic, in an intense vision of the eternal struggle between darkness and light for the human soul. In Samson Agonistes, Samson accepts his blindness as the result of human weakness which undermined his great strength. He rises above disability, using his remaining strength to destroy his tormentors and assert the glory of God.

But in the same period, Samuel Pepys, despite some ingenious efforts to preserve his failing vision, was eventually forced by a disability (which today could probably have been corrected by proper glasses) to give up composition of his famous diary.

The long-established association of disability with impotence and weakness makes it quite understandable why disabled authors and artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not often choose disability as a subject for creative imagination.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, for example, as a baby contracted scrofula the "king's evil"(for which he was unsuccessfully "touched" by Queen Anne, the last English monarch to perform this traditional ritual), and compiled his massive Dictionary despite severely limited vision and hearing.

Sir Walter Scott never allowed his experience of polio to intrude upon his narrative poems and novels of adventure in medieval Scotland, England and Europe.

Nineteenth-century Romantic poets wrote much of their emotional responses to their own experiences, but the experience of disability was not a prominent subject in the works of disabled authors, such as Byron, Keats, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Ludwig van Beethoven composed some of his greatest works after losing his hearing, and his contemporary, Francisco Goya, painted some of his most intense depictions of the horrors of war after becoming deaf. And several of the Impressionist artists who discovered the technique of painting the effects of atmosphere in reflecting light--including Manet, Dgas, and Czanne--were in fact depicting what they saw with severely impaired vision.

Non-disabled English authors of the nineteenth century often created disabled characters who played a wide variety of rolesby no means always as personifications of impotence and weakness.

Charles Dickens' Tiny Tim, who won all hearts with his cheerful endurance of pain and grateful acceptance of benefits bestowed, did indeed become a symbol of the "good cripple" who acquiesces in a system of patronizing, paternalistic benevolence. But far different are Anthony Trollope's Madeline Neroni, whose flirtations became more audacious when they must remain unconsummated; and, Mary Belton, who could tactfully explain the sexual dimension Will's love to the motherless Clara Amedroz.

Popular writers, particularly women, often use disabled characters as penetrating observers, like the narrator of Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell's My Lady Ludlow (1858) who, confined to a sofa by an injured hip, becomes the confidant of the entire household. In Charlotte M. Yonge's The Three Brides (1876) a mother, bedridden from a spinal injury in a carriage accident, continues to administer over her large household, and to dominate the lives of her three sons and her daughters-in-law.

An interesting novel of rehabilitation is Florence Barclay's The Rosary (1909). After the heroine's estranged lover is accidentally blinded, she becomes his nurse incognito, and even simulates the experience of blindness to better appreciate his point of view and resolve their misunderstanding.

American authors have often used disabled characters as symbols of evil, or goodor of social forcesrather than as many-sided human personalities. An early example is the title character of JohnPendleton Kennedy's Rob of the Bowl (1838), a legless man who maneuvers himself about in a large wooden bowl, and haunts the other characters with his perverse malevolence. Herman Melville's Captain Ahab is a towering figure of pride and lust for power, who loses first his leg and then his life to his overwhelming obsession to master the great White Whale.

Following an English tradition described above, Henry James sees Milly Theale's disability as a source of goodness and of penetrating insight into the relationships of the people around her.

For Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome and Mattie Silver, disability is the destructive consequence of illicit passion, and for Ernest Hemingway's Jake Barnes, wounded in World War I, it is a visible sign of the personal torment arising from a shattering social upheaval.

But Southern writers Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor, who were themselves disabled, have often depicted disabled characters with great sympathy and understanding, and shown these characters extending similar sympathy and understanding to others in trouble.

These few examples were selected to give some ideas of the ways in which, in the past, disabled writers have chosen to use their talents, and non-disabled authors have handled the subject of disability. Both these topics would be fertile fields for research and it is hoped that non-disabled as well as disabled scholars will undertake to investigate them systematically. Much may be learned by comparative study of the treatment of disability in different literatures at various periods, and by looking for indirect as well as direct relationships between some authors' disabilities and their writings. For effective comparison, much more must be known about the viewpoint of disabled writers, both about the fact of disability and about the world they live in.

Disabled writers can help by creating new and powerful images, based upon their special knowledge and experience, of characters with various disabilities functioning effectively in a wide range of work, leisure, community and everyday activities. By doing so not only will they correct the literary stereotypes which have done so much to shape popular conceptions of disability, but they will ultimately provide the non-disabled reader with a better understanding of this facet of human experience.


Samuel Miller, 53, was born with cerebral palsy. He is a graduate of McGill University's English Department and is a literary disabilities specialist. Inspired in the 1970's by the works of Christy Brown and the "disability" plays of Canadian David Freeman, he began studying on his own the portrayal of the physically and mentally handicapped in world literature. This was a period when Disability Studies programs were non-existent and when there were only a handful of scholars--mostly non-disabled--who were investigating this field. Among them was renowned American literary critic, Leslie Fiedler, author of Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978) and numerous other works of literary criticism. Samuel was fortunate to meet and discuss literary depictions of disability with him.

Samuel is the former editor and publisher of Disabled Writers' Quarterly: The International Literary Magazine Of Physically Disabled Writers. He also served as book review editor of the newsletter of the National Educational Association Of Disabled Students (NEADS), based at Carleton University, in Ottawa. He served on its Board of Directors as Quebec representative when NEADS was awarded the 1990 Commonwealth Youth Service Award.

He also was a prominent disabled student activist at McGill, (see Schwartz, Susan. "Sam Crawls To ClassesBut Things are Changing." Montreal Gazette 20 Dec. 1978, A3), and worked with the University for many years to eliminate architectural barriers on campus and to ensure the provision of facilities and services to disabled students. He founded and served as chairman of Access McGill, McGills disabled student organization, and also served for several years on the University's Senate Committee on Disabled Students.
In the 1980s, he was the driving force behind two student fee referendums, the first of their kind in Canada, which raised over CDN $320,000 for McGills Disabled Student Services Office, enabling McGill to retrofit buildings with ramps, handrails, and physically accessible washrooms. A van with a hydrolic lift was purchased to transport physically disabled students around campus; and tape recorders for learning disabled students and Kurzweil reading machines were bought, as well.

He is a recipient of The Scarlet Key Award, which recognizes students who have demonstrated indubitable qualities of leadership, unselfishness and perseverance by their outstanding extra-curricular contributions to the McGill community. All award recipients are automatically members of the Scarlet Key Society.

He has also assisted professors with their work on disability in literature and the humanities, some of them professors of English who happen to have disabilities, but often polio. (See, for example, Toward Solomon's Mountain: The Experience of Disability in Poetry. Edited by Joseph L. Baird and Deborah S. Workman. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986).
His literary magazine, Disabled Writers' Quarterly, was an 1981 IYDP project and was well received by the United Nations, despite folding after two issues due to dificulties in procuring additional foundation funding. It has been cited as a pioneering literary magazine by
Barbara H. Baskin and Karen H. Harris, in their hardcover reference work, More Notes from a Different Drummer: A Guide to Juvenile Fiction Portraying the Disabled (1984), and elsewhere.
Samuel was recently delighted to learn of the excellent Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, founded in 2006, and edited by Dr. David Bolt, Lecturer and Recognised Researcher in Disability Studies, Department of Inclusion Studies, Liverpool Hope University; Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Disability Research, Lancaster University. Another superb pulication is the older Kaleidoscope magazine: Exploring the Experience of Disability through Literature and the Fine Arts, founded in 1979 by United Disability Services of the United Cerebral Palsy Association, and edited by Gail Willmott.
Since 2002, Samuel has been trading U.S. stocks and options; and, for several years, he has been providing nightly chart setups for a Seattle, Washington CPA and CFO, and for another Montreal trader. The former is currently vacationing in China because her husband, a Professor of Engineering at the University of Washington, often does work in the summer for Microsoft's research facility in Beijing. They are originally from Taiwan.
Samuel, who walks with a scissor-gait and the assistance of two wooden canes made of chestnut, is also a former tournament chess player, with a personal chess collection exceeding 500 books. He also has an extensive library of world literature, as well as books pertaining to disability and the medical humanities.
Welcome To The Biblical House Of Job:

Samuel was recently diagnosed (August 13) with acute bronchitis, and is currently on a regimen of 1000 mg Biaxin XL, an upper respiratory antibiotic. Last year, he was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes and will be seeing his ophthalmologist at the end of this month, for possible surgery. In the late 1990's, a bladder stimulator implant operation, to correct his overactive bladder condition, failed.
In May, his sister, Sandra, who lives in Lakewood, New Jersey (which features a large orthodox Jewish community) was diagnosed with two serious autoimmune diseases, Sjogrens Syndrome and a less-established diagnosis of Primary Biliary Cirrhosis. He corresponds with her hepatologist and rheumatologist when issues arise, and is a member of several Sjogrens and Primary Biliary Cirrhosis forums on the Internet.

His aging father, in April, broke his right ankle following a Passover synagogue service, when he had an encounter with a small dog on a retractable leash. He got entangled in the leash, tripped, and then fell. He spent about six weeks in a leg cast, followed by a few weeks of physiotherapy to strengthen his ankle.

Several months prior to his father breaking his right ankle, his mother fell and gashed her leg on a single step outside an Italian restaurant where she had just enjoyed a meal. She stubbornly refused to have it immediately tended to at a hospital emergency (it was late at night) and she subsequently developed a bone infection. She had to spend several weeks in the Jewish General Hospital on an antibiotic drip.