Disability History in the News

It’s been a busy week here at the University, so I haven’t had much time to do more than note the following articles related to disability history, loosely defined in one case.

First up is the New York Times review of The Lives They Left Behind, a book version of an exhibit on the Willard State Hospital at the New York State Museum. I really love the exhibit and am looking forward to reading the book. The book reviewer, being an M.D., seems to be missing the point of historical scholarship. She writes, “basing a complex argument on fragmented and archaic case histories is problematic both for science and for style. A coherent scientific argument demands complete, current data, not reinterpreted glimpses of the past.” This may be fine for “evidence-based medicine,” but really unfair to apply to historical scholarship, which by its very nature is based on the shards and pieces that manage to survive. Also, sometimes you just have to get angry about social injustice, even bitchy, like this righteous woman. [as Tina Fey said when Senatorella was on SNL, “bitches get things done.”]

Another story on exhibiting disability history to the public comes from this CBS news story on the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, which has been turned into a tourist attraction and historic site. Some mental health advocates have objected to the use of the word “lunatic” in the museum’s promotional materials. Others have suggested that this term, while politically incorrect today, is an important part of the history that should not be covered up to suit modern day sensibilities. I’m inclined to lean toward the latter position, just as long as it doesn’t lead to a revival of the term in the popular lexicon (only we loonies can use the word!)

The final story comes from my interest in bicycling, and is not really about history except that it regards a well known cyclist from the 1980s and early 1990s, Davis Phinney. I had no idea he had Parkinson’s disease. His son is now an elite cyclists aiming for the Olympics. Maybe they’ll let Davis carry the torch, like they did with Muhammed Ali? Probably not, Davis was great in his day, but he’s not Lance.

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