A new book co-edited by a University of Manitoba professor is exploring the role people with disabilities have played throughout history in cultures across the world.
The Routledge History of Disability looks at how people with disabilities navigated life from ancient Greece to the current day — covering 28 periods in history, 20 countries and four continents.
“I think it’s important to recognize that people with disabilities have always been present throughout history and that we have always been active, vital members of society and not simply passive recipients of care,” said Nancy Hansen, one of the book’s editors and the director of the interdisciplinary master’s program in disability studies at the University of Manitoba, on CBC Radio’s Weekend Morning Show.
Hansen, who has cerebral palsy and uses crutches, said it was very important for her to understand her place in history.
That history is vast and varied, she said. In some cultures, people are uncomfortable around disability and it’s clear “people have discomfort with differences they don’t understand.”
But others were very progressive.
“For example, the Ottoman Empire was quite progressive in dealing with disability and disabled people. They were actively involved in employment [and] education, and people were expected to participate fully in society,” Hansen said.
“At the same time, those with difficulties were looked after by various agencies in the state.”
In more modern history, the book traces the progress of the independent living movement in the United States and how people with disabilities were actively involved in shifting legislation.
Hansen said Canada is certainly taking some great steps forward, but that wasn’t always the case when you look at this country’s history with disability.
“There was eugenics legislation in B.C. and Alberta until the 1970s, but contrast that to today, where there are processes for the development of federal accessibility legislations,” she said.
“There have been really positive instances and progress is being made.”
The community of people with disabilities is still often ignored and their portrayal in art, literature and media can be non-existent.
But Hansen said she hopes the new book will help everyone understand the place people with disabilities have had in the past so they can push forward to a more positive future.
“Hopefully this book will give people a better understanding of disability and disabled people from a more positive perspective,” she said. “Seeing that we have lives that are active, vital and fully of quality, texture and depth.”