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.