Over the course of the nineteenth century the concept of disability started to consolidate. Through a number of phenomena, including the census, philanthropic surveys and missionary work, both the state and philanthropic organisations increasingly identifying disabled people as a ‘problem population’. Not only were disabled people subject to physical, emotional and material distress, it was claimed, but their disability also often led to educational deprivation and, crucially, spiritual impoverishment. This paper explores how, one of the consequences of this increased ‘discovery’ of disabled people, and their constitution as objects of pity, was the imperative to ‘save’ them from physical destitution and spiritual damnation. From deaf children ignorant of Christ, to ‘crippled’ men unable to work, to ‘feeble-minded’ women lax in their morals and prolific in their reproduction, disabled populations constituted a mass of people considered in need of help from the able-bodied. This positioning, as deserving dependents and a burden to the non-disabled, has been enduring and has been discussed by some theorists as the origins of ‘social welfare colonisation’. At the same time, from the late eighteenth century onwards a series of intellectual and pedagogical developments meant that helping or ‘civilising’ certain disabled populations, such as blind and deaf people, started to be seen as possible whereas previously they had been considered uneducatable. This tied in both with Enlightenment ideas of progress and ‘civilisation’ and with Evangelical ideas about ‘salvation’ which were formative across the British empire from the establishment of schools at home to missions overseas.
This paper tracks how, over the course of the nineteenth century, a rapidly growing group of philanthropists, educationalists and religious figures declared they could ‘save’ the disabled and advocated new techniques and instruments which they claimed could ‘rescue’ the ‘crippled poor’, teach ‘deaf-mute’ people to acquire speech and enable blind people to read. Societies were established to ‘educate’, ‘civilise’ and ‘Christianise’ disabled children, particularly those from the working classes. I argue that through these developments, disabled people were deemed incapable of helping themselves and dependent on non-disabled people. This was, I argue, part of a wider civilising project that had imperial resonances and dimensions. The paper comes from my recent book, Colonising Disability,which makes a wider argument that disability was, in the nineteenth century, reconfigured as a powerful marker of difference that intersected in complex ways with ideas of race, gender and class.
Esme Cleall is a lecturer in the History of the British Empire, at the University of Sheffield. Her first book, Missionary Discourses of Difference: negotiating otherness in the British empire, c. 1840-1900 (Palgrave, 2012), explored missionary writing about race and gender in nineteenth-century India and southern Africa. Her new book, Colonising Disabiltiy: impairment and otherness in Britain and its empire, c. 1800-1914 (Cambridge: CUP, 2022), from which this paper is taken, explores disability in the British empire from an intersectional and critical colonial perspective. She is currently working on a project about emotional lives and mental distress in the colonial sphere.
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