DH and Disability

I am a Victorianist in the English Ph.D. program, and one of my particular interests is in disability studies. Reading one of this week’s articles entitled “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” made me made me realize that though we may consider our conceptions of disability to be more “evolved,” than those of the Victorians, the digital world we have built often excludes people to the same degree the material world used to exclude disabled Victorians. Furthermore, digital media have come to be used for so many tasks that are fundamental to our functioning in the larger world that digital exclusion may be just as debilitating as exclusion from participation in the physical world was for the Victorians.

Many people today, citing such examples as Dickens’s well-known crippled child, Tiny Tim, may think Victorians representations of disability are sappy and cliched. However, their sympathetic nature also implied a high level of concern for the plight of the disabled. The mere extent to which disability was portrayed with feeling in novels–particularly in the novels of such (then) well-known writers as Charles Dickens, Dinah Craik, and Charlotte Yonge testifies to this fact.

Thus, there were also large-scale efforts at improving things for the disabled in the real world of Victorian England–especially for the blind. One prominent example was Samuel Gridley Howe who developed a method of proto-braille by which the deaf-blind girl, Laura Bridgman, learned to read.

Of course Victorian representations of disabled people were also far from uncomplicated. Gender, race, and age all inflected them to a great degree. As disability theorist Martha Stoddard Holmes has pointed out, crippled, aging men were quite often the villains of Dickens’s novels. The roles disabled people could play (in novels even more than in life) were also severely restricted. However, the fact remains that people like Howe recognized that in the Victorians’ hyper-visual culture, a culture of which illustrated periodicals and novels were the primary forms of expression, being able to decode that medium of expression was particularly important.

In our own culture, depictions of disability are often similarly conflicted–laden alternately with sentiment (think inspirational stories and fundraising campaigns) and mistrust (as when people suspect disabled homeless people of really being able to work after all). We also inhabit a world in which physically disabled people sometimes cannot use the tools digital humanists are making. If they are scholars, this lack of access could set their work back years, and if not, could nevertheless set back their personal drive to learn for its own sake–a drive which the humanities is supposed to foster.  I therefore hope that Williams’s call for the development of tools such as  a freely available online captioning tool and software that converts files into digital talking books will be answered. I also think his idea to use crowd-sourcing in order to caption online videos illuminates an important difference between the Victorian age and our own–that even people with little technical expertise could (perhaps should) have a share in the responsibility of extending access to disabled users of digital humanities technologies.


3 thoughts on “DH and Disability

  1. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh


    I really like your transhistorical observation here, and enjoyed reading about Victorian conceptions of disability.

    In acknowledging the fraught depictions of disability in the Victorian period as still today, you also implicitly raise the question for me, and maybe others: what about LACK of depictions–or invisibility of disability, period? While disabled voices are often silenced or overlooked and not depicted at all, this question raises a further one: are we ignoring non-normative bodies because digital environments de-emphasize the physical body as a matter of principle?

    In digital networks of communication and scholarship, the physical body is often ghosted or disembodied–Google hang-outs are not full of material presence (except in hardware), but rather binary numbers and code. Even voices on modern telephones are digital–transformed from analog signals into numbers. Even in questions of labor, the bodies that produce our hardware are often ghosted in the traditional Marxist sense of “ghosted labor”–underpaid and unrecognized in the sleek devices that we use in the process of further ghosting our own bodies, normative or otherwise.

    It seems that the ghosting of the body in digital environments offers an incredibly productive space for non-normative bodies to exercise new forms of agency–if we can just make sure the correct, accessible tools and principles of design are there. By ensuring that a variety of bodies are able to access these digital environments, we free up creative and intellectual space for generative approaches to the experience of the physical in digital context.


    Ignoring non-normative bodies seems anti-humanistic, but I see Mary Catherine’s point in asking the question. This question highlights, what appears to me, as the precarious position of digital humanities. There is a tug and pull force that attempts to keep the digital humanities afloat. Drucker’s “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship” opened my eyes to this as well.

    While Mary Catherine’s question highlights the notion of principles (or ethos), the Drucker reading focuses on methodology (as theory). But, to me, they both seem to address the humanities ideologies and methodologies that DH’ers have had to “abandon” in order to “make things work” in the digital environment. As Drucker states, it is the engineering and technology disciplines and their practitioners that are running digital technology. DH’ers have been following these applied sciences way of thinking (positivist, quantitative, mechanistic, reductive and literal) in order to use digital technology for their humanities scholarship (which requires more relativist, performative, constructionist, qualitative, non self-identical approaches). Drucker’s call for a more humanistically-inclined digital technology forces me to ask if the digital environment needs to de-emphasize the physical body. Can we change our digital environment and tools to reflect humanities scholarship (methodology and ideology)? A hopeful yes, but my lack of engineering knowledge forces me to end here. I will say that the rise in wearable technology seems to be bringing the body and the digital very close together. A lot of metric tracking for now, but it’ll be interesting to see how far this will go. #AppleLive, anyone?

  3. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh


    Thanks for your thoughtful perspective. To clarify, I share the sentiment of your opening statement– “ignoring non-normative bodies seems anti-humanistic”–and call for more accessible digital humanities hardware and software BECAUSE it is anti-humanistic to only provide tools for normative bodies.

    Only when the playing field is more level for the various bodies that practice DH will a de-emphasizing of the body potentially become a generative concept in digital environments. Until then, it seems more of an excuse for exclusionary practices or a reason they fail to signify in the first place.


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