Part 4: Issues in Historical Disability

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • discuss issues related to historical disability.
  • communicate positions through writing.

The following are brief discussions of only a few issues in historical disability.

Complex Heritage

When asked to think about disability, particularly historical disability, many will often reference a very simplistic, grim outlook. Disability is perceived as almost exclusively a negative, as both an undesirable state of existence and a guarantee of mistreatment. When someone “overcomes” this negative treatment or avoids it, they are believed to be the “exceptions.” The truth, as it so often is, is far more complex. As with all human experiences, there are negatives, there are positives, there are neutrals, and sometimes these all can even occur simultaneously.

Leprosy in the Middle Ages is a perfect example. The average modern understanding of medieval leprosy is that lepers were shunned from all society and universally perceived as repulsive. While certainly we have examples of those experiences, we find that social perceptions were not so singular.

From a fourteenth-century Middle English sermon, we have a traditional model of leprosy equating with sin:

For just as leprosy makes the body
Ugly and loathsome and repulsive,
So the filth of lechery makes
The soul very loathsome spiritually,
And the swelling of secret pride
Is leprosy, which no man may hide.

Leprosy is described as making a person “ugly,” “loathsome,” and “repulsive,” a disease that cannot be hidden because it is so apparent in its marks on the body. Yet, another Middle English sermon, written within a hundred years of the previous one, in the fifteenth-century, represents leprosy as a means of demonstrating spiritual worth:

There once lived a bishop in France who washed the feet of lepers. One day the bishop encountered a leper along the way. The bishop kissed him. The leper said, “Bishop, on account of your humility, wipe with your tongue out of my nose the snot that is hanging in there, because I cannot bear any linen cloth to touch it, it is so sore.” The bishop with his tongue licked it out humbly. And in his licking, suddenly out of the leper’s nose fell a precious stone into the bishop’s mouth, shining bright and sweet-smelling. And then, in the sight of the bishop, the leper ascended up to heaven. (Translations by Orlemanski)

Respectful treatment of the leper allows the bishop to be rewarded – in this case, the precious stone is also a metaphor for spiritual reward. Even more importantly, the leper “ascends into heaven,” in direct contrast with the first sermon’s insistence that leprosy is a metaphor for sin. These two texts demonstrate how, even in roughly similar time periods, languages, and geographical areas, perceptions and treatment of people with disabilities were multifaceted and even at times contradictory.

Why is it necessary to emphasize this complexity? The over-simplification of a concept so often leads to the over-simplification of people. People with disabilities become more marginalized when their heritage is flattened, when they are reduced to stereotypes.

Challenge to the Singular Narrative

Despite what we know about historical disability, its representation in museums, which is one of the main ways we communicate knowledge to the general public, lacks much in the way of nuance. In terms of medieval disability, for instance, an exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum, “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders,” confined the disabled to the section on “Aliens,” only presenting those ways the disabled were represented as monstrous. The Getty Museum, “Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World” included a section on “Ableism and Classism,” focusing on the role of the disabled in charity and how they were often satirized. These were excellent exhibitions that brought the culture of the Middle Ages to broader audiences, but they also in their way contributed to a singular idea of historical disability.

Studying historical disability also challenges our understanding of “progress,” of what is “normal.” For instance, Geel, in Belgium, is famous as the site of the martyrdom of Saint Dymphna. After her death at the hands of her father in the seventh century, Geel became known as a destination for those with mental disability or mental health issues. Dymphna herself became the patron saint of mental health. Those who visited Geel were housed either in the hospital or, when that filled up, in the houses of welcoming community members. These practices continue today. Such an example forces us to consider how far we have come when people with mental health disabilities are still viewed with stigma.

Language Differences

The study of historical disability can sometimes be complicated by the fact that different language has been used for disabilities across time and geography. Prior to the advent of common medical terminologies, there was a wide variation in how people talked about disabilities. The Medieval Disability Glossary attempts to collect different terminology used for disabilities in different languages and periods of the Middle Ages. One entry alone can demonstrate language variation. The term lame is derived from the Old English lama, and related terms in only four languages from the entire Middle Ages include Middle High German lüeme, Latin claudus and paralyticus; Old English wanhal; and Middle English palsy, feble,and crokyd. For each of these words, they have slightly different uses and meanings, which indicates a rich array of approaches to communicating about someone with a disability of the limbs depending on when and where a person lived. The same is true for other disabilities. At the same time that this provides much fodder for study, it can be difficult to track down and interpret all of these forms of words.

There is also language that changes as certain words receive more scrutiny and criticism. For instance, the word handicap derives from a tradition of people with disabilities being forced to beg for their livelihood, literally going “cap in hand” to ask for sustenance. The continued usage of the word handicap is a reminder of negative ways people with disabilities were perceived and treated, which is why many wish to replace the term with words such as accessible (i.e. accessible parking instead of the commonly-used handicap parking) that do not have the same connotations and etymology.

Write: Position

About This Type of Writing

In writing, a genre is a category of literary composition. In a position argument, your purpose is to present a perspective, or viewpoint, about a debatable issue and persuade readers that your perspective is correct or at least worthy of serious consideration. A debatable issue is one that is subject to uncertainty or to a difference of opinion; in college classes, a debatable issue is one that is complex and involves critical thinking. These issues are not rooted in absolutes; instead, they invite writers to explore all sides to discover the position they support. In examining and explaining their positions, writers provide reasoning and evidence about why their stance is correct.

Many people may interpret the word argument to mean a heated disagreement or quarrel. However, this is only one definition. In writing, argument—what Aristotle called rhetoric—means “working with a set of reasons and evidence for the purpose of persuading readers that a particular position is not only valid but also worthy of their support.” This approach is the basis of academic position writing.

Position arguments must provide reasoning and evidence to support the validity of the author’s viewpoint. By offering strong support, writers seek to persuade their audiences to understand, accept, agree with, or take action regarding their viewpoints. In a college class, an audience is usually an instructor and other classmates. Outside of an academic setting, however, an audience includes anyone who might read the argument—employers, employees, colleagues, neighbors, and people of different ages or backgrounds or with different interests.

Before you think about writing, keep in mind that presenting a position is already part of your everyday life. You present reasoning to frame evidence that supports your opinions, whether you are persuading a friend to go to a certain restaurant, or persuading your supervisor to change your work schedule. Your reasoning and evidence emphasize the importance of the issue—to you. Position arguments are also valuable outside of academia. Opinion pieces and letters to the editor are essentially brief position texts that express writers’ viewpoints on current events topics. Moreover, government organizations and political campaigns often use position arguments to present detailed views of one side of a debatable issue.

It is most useful to look at a position argument as rational disagreement rather than as a quarrel or contest. Rational disagreements occur most often in areas of genuine uncertainty about what is right, best, or most reasonable. In disciplines such as literature and history, position arguments commonly take the form of interpretation or analysis, in which the meaning of an idea or text is disputed. In disciplines such as engineering and business, position arguments commonly examine a problem and propose a solution. For example, a position paper in engineering might focus on improvement recommendations for systems in the oil and gas industry; a position paper in business might focus on technological changes that would benefit a particular company or industry.

In college, position arguments aim to persuade readers to agree with a particular viewpoint. Assignments commonly require you to take a stance on an issue and defend your position against attacks from skeptics or naysayers. You are asked to choose an issue, present a viewpoint about it, and support it with reasoning and evidence.

Remember these basic points:

  • Choose a debatable issue. A position argument that states, for instance, that three-year-old children can be left alone all evening is one with no room for debate, so the topic would not lead to an effective argument. Without a debate, there is no argument.
  • Present a clear, definite viewpoint. Readers do not want to guess your position. Although you present both sides of a position, readers must be clear about which side you support.
  • Support your viewpoint with reasoning and evidence. If, for instance, you are writing about backing a local proposal to remove a statute of a Civil War general who fought for the Confederacy, readers need to know why you favor its removal, why the statue was first erected, and how removal will help the community. You would then support each with cause-and-effect reasoning and evidence. For example, details that explain why you favor removal might include the general’s support of the Southern economic system sustained by enslavement. Details that explain why the statue was erected might include that the general was from the town and that his family was rich and influential enough to fund the creation and placement of the statue. Details that explain how the removal of the statue will affect the community might include the promotion of a feeling of solidarity with local citizens of all races and the end of negative publicity resulting from association with the general.
  • Identify counterclaims (dissenting opinions). When you address differing or contradictory opinions, show empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, for those with dissenting views. If, for instance, people oppose a proposed new law because they think it will cost too much money, then explain why the money will be well spent or offset by savings in the future. Neither antagonize nor dismiss the opposition.

​​Summary of Writing Task

Statement: Disability is not often represented in museums, especially in exhibits or spaces of its own. Historical disability is rarely a primary topic of exhibition.

Write a position piece responding to the following questions:

  • Why is historical disability rarely presented in museums?
  • Why should or should it not be represented more often?

Text Attributions

This section contains material taken from “Chapter 10: Position Argument: Practicing the Art of Rhetoric” from Writing Guide with Handbook by Senior Contributing Authors Michelle Bachelor Robinson, Maria Jerskey, and Toby Fulwiler, with other contributing authors and is used under a CC BY 4.0 license.


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