Ableism and history

I’m always interested when I see something about history that includes a disability element. So I was both intrigued and shocked to read about a nineteenth century soldier with a “facial disfigurement.”  I was shocked, not because of the subject, but because of the ugly value laden and ableist language used to describe an injured man. The story sounded interesting, but the language in the first paragraph got in the way.

I’m sure Te Papa staff are clear about the use of racist or sexist language in public historical discourse. They should have an equal understanding about other kinds of denigrating, value-laden language in what I would expect to be a neutral and respectful environment.

Facial difference is a particularly sensitive subject, open to ridicule and casual cruelty, and therefore needs tact and respect in description. When discussing a subject where the injury is relevant to the narrative, language should be kept neutral in this context. Using “othering” or “freak show” language demeans the person, perpetuates harmful stereotypes, and is as damaging as ignoring disability in history altogether, as is mostly the case in New Zealand.

It disturbs me that such a prestigious and influential cultural institution as Te Papa should be so ignorant, careless and unthinking to describe someone who can’t object in this way.

In this context it is important to hear the voices of those who are directly affected by the use of such language and who have a clear view of the issues it raises. In this context it would have been perfectly adequate and truthful to describe the man as having a facial injury.

Stories like this one, and many others that include a disability element are very much worth telling. Disabled people are, after all, twenty four percent of the population, not an insignificant group, but our history and our stories need to be told by those who understand disability from the inside out to avoid such unnecessary and embarrassing mistakes.

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