18 November, 2007

Lecture Notes

I sat down this evening and did a test-run of what I've written so far of my lecture. It clocked in at just under 20 minutes, which means I need a minimum of 2,000 more words, and preferably closer to 3,000. Still, that is feasible.

I need to work on enunciating and on speaking slowly. I also have to practice several more times, because I keep tripping over my own words. Also, there is my ambition not to be one of those lecturers who mumble unintelligibly, nor who talk too fast to hear, nor even who read very well but only read. I want to engage, I want to entertain. And I want to impress the socks off the professors and staff who I hope will one day be looking at my CV for a tenure-track job. I've got long-term plans, my friends, and this is where they start!

And now, for those who live far, far from south-western Ontario, here's the introduction of my talk. Criticism and requests for clarity are encouraged and appreciated!

Medieval Studies is, as any medievalist knows, a highly interdisciplinary field. The disability studies field is likewise interdisciplinary. It is quite surprising, then, that the two fields have not often intersected. In the past, medievalists have ignored the history of disability, leaving it to doctors and medical historians. Disability Studies is a relatively new field, and has focused almost exclusively on the modern period. It is only in this century that dialogue between the disciplines has begun to bear fruit.

My research has led me to stumble upon this strange intersection, which is what I am here today to talk about. The methodologies of both disciplines will be discussed in turn. It is impossible to explain the topic, or even the necessity of the scholarship, without doing so. Both disability scholars and medievalists have dismissed each other’s methodology, and this strange circumstance has concealed the very lack of scholarship. Nevertheless, the field of medieval disability studies is beginning to gain momentum and notice, and is developing a methodology unique to itself. It is in this setting that the questions I pose find themselves.

The field of disability studies is a relatively recent one, developing and gaining prominence only since the 1980s. Before then, impairment was considered a topic only suitable for medical discourse. Disability was considered almost irrelevant to historical study, as it was something that had always been a fact of life. In taking such a position, these medical scholars assumed that the implications of impairment – its social and cultural aspects – were universal and absolute. In the 1980s, following the dramatic paradigm shift that feminist studies had forced upon the historical and sociological fields, scholars and activists began to consider whether the place of disabled persons had not been similarly ignored.

Out of this grew the field of Disability Studies, and the core of all further scholarship concerning impairment. Disability, scholars say, is anything but absolute. A distinction is drawn between the physiological fact of, for example, a missing leg, and the dis-abling situation of wheelchair-inaccessible buildings. The word “impairment” is taken to mean the physiological fact, and “disability” has come to mean the social and cultural circumstances which separate an impaired person from normal activity, the “generic term used to denote the social disadvantage experienced by people with an accredited impairment.” The old medical model, which drew no such distinction, inevitably applied modern assumptions to times and cultures which may not have shared them. The clarification of this critical concept allows scholars to approach the history of disability in an entirely new way. As Irina Metzler explains, the old model “is not appropriate to an investigation of disability in historic terms, in that past societies ... have had impairment but may not have had ‘disability’. If the medical model is used, then it is at the risk of contaminating the evidence with modern cultural assumptions” (9).

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