Disability in our Disciplines

3rd June 2014

News, Student news, Alumni news

Examining the way disability and academic studies intersect was the theme of The 'Disability in our Disciplines' symposium held at Wadham on 19 May.

Focusing on the overlap between disability studies in Philosophy, Theology, Classics and English, the event was organised by Wadham’s SU President, Anya Metzer (2012, English), as part of the ‘Let's get disability on the list!’ campaign, established by Wadham students and spearheaded by Marie Tidball (2011, Criminology).

David Leal from Theology, Jane Masseglia from Classics, Katherine Morris from Philosophy and Ankhi Mukherjee from English discussed ways in which they, in their scholarship and teaching, contextualised and interpreted disability.

The critical consensus was that disability studies could no longer be trivialised as identity politics relevant to those living with disabilities, and that it should be mined for interrogating (and revising) hegemonic cultural paradigms of health (physical and mental), rationality and normative sexuality. It was increasingly clear from the different presentations and the discussion that followed that disability, historically treated as the unseen and repressed Other of the ‘normate’ body, had at last returned to scholarly discourse to claim its symbolic and political dues. 

Ankhi Mukherjee commented: “The ‘Disability in our Disciplines’ symposium facilitated an important and timely conversation in a multi-disciplinary forum. Initiatives such as this are needed to remind academics and students alike that disability and its related issues have long suffered from a criminal lack of awareness, sustained attention and commensurate representation in theory and praxis. The foregrounding of a minority discourse in the form of the ‘Let's get disability on the list’ campaign also provides a salutary check on the majoritarian and universalizing tendencies of the knowledge economy.” 

Dr Jane Masséglia from the Faculty of Classics explored some of the differences between ancient and modern attitudes towards physical disability in the representation of people with restricted growth (dwarfism) and Scoliosis (curvature of the spine).

Concentrating on two second-century Roman floor mosaics (shown below) from a villa in Jekmejeh, on the modern Turkish-Syrian border, she explained that the figure of the dancing dwarf and the dancing hunchback were not simply chosen to recall the professional ‘novelty acts’ at ancient symposia, but because dwarfism and spinal “humps” were thought to give the body talismanic properties.

Jane Masséglia explained: “People with Restricted Growth (Dwarfism) and Scoliosis (described as 'hunchbacks') were considered living good luck charms that could ward off the Evil Eye (a jealous force which was thought to leach away happiness). Their ‘misfortune’ balanced the good fortune of those who saw them, and their dance performances made people laugh – and laughter was the most potent counter-offensive against the effects of the Evil Eye.”

In the larger of the two mosaics, the figure of the dwarf is just one of several magical weapons used to attack the image of the Evil Eye, turning his back to the target, and with his penis tucked through his thighs to point backwards in an insulting and humorous gesture that Dr Masséglia has named the ‘Tuck-for-Luck’ dance. Written in tiles above him, just as in the hunchback mosaic, are the words “KAI SU” (“And you too!”), a phrase wishing good fortune and protection on those who walked over it.

“Even while dwarfs and those with spinal ‘humps’ were considered humorous, they also commanded a certain respect and were believed to possess a power which other kinds of physical deformity, notably trauma, did not. In an ancient biography of the author Aesop, according to tradition a slave, we are told that his master decided to buy him expressly because he had ‘a talisman on his back’. The anonymous author of this work didn’t need to explain to the ancient reader that by ‘talisman’, he meant ‘hump’. It was understood,” said Dr Masséglia.

  • 'People with Restricted Growth (Dwarfism) and Scoliosis (described as 'hunchbacks') were considered living good luck charms that could ward off the Evil Eye (a jealous force which was thought to leach away happiness).

  • 'The figure of the dwarf was just one of several magical weapons used to attack the image of the Evil Eye.

Let’s get disability on the list!

The ‘Let's get disability on the list!’ campaign aims to raise awareness about how disability features in Oxford’s Academic activity in order to discover where topics, texts and discussion about disability and its related issues are taking place at both faculty and college levels. Campaigners are asking faculties and colleges to look at their reading lists and taught course syllabi and audit where disability is included, as well as organising a series of academic events and awareness raising projects.

What is happening?

How is disability included in substantive material covered on the undergraduate and postgraduate reading lists? Building on the momentum of Oxford University’s Disability Awareness Week, we are asking faculties and Colleges to look at their reading lists and taught course syllabi and audit where disability is included – whether as a discrete topic, integrated as part of a week’s reading list or explored in core texts.

Why does it matter?

The University has over 1,000 students with a declared disability[1]. Raising disability awareness is not just about improving access to University services; it involves using the University’s intellectual resources to consider, research and discuss the myriad of intersecting issues relating to disability.  At the talk on Disabled People and Public Policy Engagement, which Wadham kindly hosted on Wednesday, Benjamin Cohen told the audience that a recent survey[2] found that ‘there are over eleven million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability in Great Britain’. Yet, they are significantly underrepresented in politics and public life[3]. Politicians, Policymakers and legislators are operating within a challenging financial environment. Nevertheless, under the Equality Act 2010 they are required to pay due regard to the cumulative Impact upon people with disabilities of these changes to policy[4]. The concept and analytical approach of cumulative impact is just one example of a subject matter affecting disabled people, which is ripe for academic research and debate. Whether this relates to the qualitative and quantative methodology required to carry out this analysis, the complex economic modelling needed to assess this impact effectively, or the health inequalities that might result from the closure and reduction of services for this group.

The issues which affect this group of people - their role in history, art and culture have led to a rich seam of academic research pursued in the Discipline of Disability Studies[5]. This is an exciting opportunity for the University of Oxford to promote the teaching and research it is already undertaking in this area and continue to produce prestigious academic output. It will facilitate knowledge transfer across faculties and further enable our 1,000 students with declared disabilities to participate in existing academic courses. 

Why should Colleges get involved?

Across a number of disciplines, College tutors play an integral role in setting undergraduate and graduate reading lists. We want to discover where topics, texts and discussion about disability and its related issues is taking place at both Faculty and College levels.  Each College provides a unique and vibrant environment for discussion around diversity issues; their involvement will play a vital part in continuing to generate academic debate in this stimulating cross-disciplinary subject matter. 

[1] http://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/postgraduate_courses/apply/application_guide/disabilities.html
Family Resources Survey 2010/11
See the Office for Disability Issues http://odi.dwp.gov.uk/disability-statistics-and-research/disability-facts-and-figures.php
Making fair financial  decisions  An assessment of HM Treasury’s 2010  Spending Review conducted under Section 31 of the 2006 Equality Act (EHRC, 2013)
Leeds University, for example, have  a Centre for Disability Studies http://disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/

Speaker profiles

Dr David Leal (Theology)

Dr David Leal is Supernumerary Fellow in Philosophy at Brasenose College, Schools Liaison Officer for Philosophy and a member of the Faculty of Theology. Before joining Brasenose he directed studies in philosophy and theology at Regent’s Park College. His research interests include moral theology and philosophical theology, and he has written multiple articles on ethics in society as well as editing the Ashgate series ‘Liturgy, Worship and Society’.

Dr Jane Masseglia (Classics)

Dr Jane Masséglia is a Research Fellow at the Faculty of Classics and the Ashmolean Museum, where she is part of the Ashmolean Latin Inscriptions Project (AshLI), a project to make Latin inscriptions more available to a wider audience, especially in schools. Further discussion of these mosaics, and of ancient attitudes towards the body appear in her book *Body Language in Hellenistic Art and Society*, (OUP, in press). She is also a founding member of the Oxford Classical Documentary Shorts programme through which Sixth Formers make short films inspired by the Ashmolean’s collection. Her research interests focus on material culture, particularly within social interaction and her doctoral thesis explored non-verbal communication and body language through the medium of Hellenistic art. http://www.classics.ox.ac.uk/janemasseglia.html.

Dr Katherine Morris (Philosophy)

Dr Katherine Morris is Supernumerary Fellow in Philosophy at Mansfield College whose research interests include the phenomenology of the human body and examination of Descartes, Merleau-Pontry, Sartre and Wittgenstein. She holds an MPhil in Medical Anthropology, her thesis exploring cosmetic surgery, gender and embodiment. She has published on Descartes’ dualism with Gordon Baker, and on Sartre and Merleau-Pontry, as well as editing and introducing the volumes Wittgenstein’s Method and Sartre on the Body. She is the co-editor of the OUP series ‘International Perspectives in Psychiatry and Philosophy’

Professor Ankhi Mukherjee (English)

Professor Ankhi Mukherjee is an Associate Professor and Teaching Fellow at Wadham College, specialising in the Victorian and modern periods and in critical theory, with particular emphasis on psychoanalytic and postcolonial approaches to literature. Her first monograph, Aesthetic Hysteria, was a deconstructive study of hysteria in Victorian literature, combining psychoanalytic readings with gender and performance theory. She has recently co-edited a Blackwell Companion to Psychoanalysis, Literature, and Culture with Laura Marcus as well as publishing a second monograph, What is a Classic, an interrogation of the literary canon in a postcolonial world.

Click on the video below to watch campaign leader Marie Tidball discussing her studies at Wadham College, Oxford.