18 Jul 2013 Conference Report: VariAbilit(ies) A Conference on the History and Representation of the Body in its Diversity - Victoria Brown

Earlier this month, I attended the VariAbilit(ies) conference hosted by Emory University and the University of Winchester. The conference brought together a range of participants from a varied academic background, including literature, history and the medical humanities. The theme of the conference was to discuss the varied body throughout history (past/present and even future). Professor Chris Mounsey (University of Winchester) in opening proceedings described the event as a single conversation about disability and ability, a conversation that could not be considered, however, in mere binary terms.

The conversations that took place over the next three days were diverse; from medieval mental health (Professor Wendy Turner, Augusta State University), to the representation of disabled bodies in contemporary art (Amanda Cachia, University of California, San Diego) to the speech and elocution of 18th century British Royalty (Jared Richman, Colorado College). There were panels that discussed ideas concerning aesthetics, contemporary versions of disability, disabling science and American disability.

The keynote speakers provided illuminating talks on language, literature and music. Professor Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Emory University) gave a fascinating plenary session entitled, “Disability Things”, discussing the contentious topic of disability and eugenics. Garland-Thomson declared her talk to be an argument for disability rather than an argument against eugenics. The case study used was the now famous New York Times article from 2003, where the late disability activist and lawyer Harriet McBryde Johnson discussed her meeting with the bioethicist, Professor Peter Singer (the article can be read in full here). Ultimately, the message this particular talk delivered, and indeed permeated the entire conference, was that disability (either the absence or the presence of) does not predict quality of life.

The conference also had a panel that showcased a forthcoming “dictionary” of disability studies, with around 60 different contributors. Keywords in Disability Studies, edited by Professor Benjamin Reiss (Emory University), Professor Rachel Adams (Columbia University) and Associate Professor David Serlin (University of California, San Diego) is scheduled for publication by New York University Press in 2014.

For my part, I presented a paper on the final day of the conference entitled, 'Rendered Incapable of Use', Competing Definitions of Disability Amongst Coal Miners in the North East of England, 1862-1936. The paper examined the evolution of disability within the coalfields of the North East of England from the mid-19th century until the Second World War. It assessed the competing definitions of ‘disabled’ within the industrial sphere where the term often referred not to physical impairments but to the individual’s ability to work. Definitions of disablement shifted throughout the period examined, especially after the introduction of the Workmen’s Compensation Acts (1906-1934). During which time the (dis)ability to work became the central test as to whether compensation would be awarded which immutably altered the way disability was perceived within the coalfields.

The paper was, very generously, well received amongst the delegates and I received some interesting and insightful feedback, especially from the American perspective. I am grateful for my inclusion in the conference and feel I benefitted enormously from witnessing and being part of this “single conversation”. I am sure that it will encourage me to think outside of the box even more when carrying out my own work and research.

Many thanks to Paul, Chris and Stan for all their hard work organising the conference.

Dr John Pemberton.JPG

[Dr John Pemberton (1831-1888), American Pharmacist and the inventor of Coca-Cola. Pemberton’s French Wine Coca was advertised as beneficial to those “who require a nerve tonic and a pure, delightful diffusible stimulant” and distributed around Atlanta and Georgia in the mid-1880s.]