Disability History in France: a Forum

The next issue of French History will include a forum on Disability History in France, which you can read in advance (and is open access until April 14th 2024) here.

We caught up with Rebecca Scales, Jonathyne Briggs, and Jessie Hewitt to talk about the background to the forum and the futures of disability history in France. The contributors are also hosting a live webinar on H-France Salon on April 8 at 11am Eastern Standard Time: you can register to attend here.

Rebecca Scales is Associate Professor of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her first book, Radio and the Politics of Sound in Interwar France (Cambridge UP) appeared in 2016. She is currently at work on a monograph exploring the social, cultural, and political history of polio in France from the 1930s through 1970s.

Jonathyne Briggs is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of Humanities and the Arts at Indiana University Northwest. His first book, Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958-1980 (Oxford University Press), was released in 2015. He is currently finishing Perpetual Children: The Politics of Autism in France since 1950, to be published by Oxford University Press in 2025.

Jessie Hewitt is Associate Professor of History at the University of Redlands in southern California, where she teaches a wide array of classes including the history of disability. Her first book, Institutionalizing Gender: Madness, the Family, and Psychiatric Power in Nineteenth-Century France, came out with Cornell University Press in 2020.

Hi all, thanks for joining us to talk about your new forum on disability history in France. How did this forum first come about?

Rebecca: Claire Eldridge, one of the journal’s editors, approached us after attending a 2021 event organized by the Western Society for French History called “BEYOND DEl: Reimagining Scholarly Community in Francophone Historical Studies.” Cathy Kudlick was featured speaker, and Claire was interested in hearing more from scholars about the state of disability history as a field in France as well as how it might encourage us to think differently about French history as a whole.

Jonathyne: Rebecca Scales reached out to me, given that we had often worked together on panels on disability history at conferences. I was absolutely honored to be asked to contribute and wanted to share some of what I had been working on for my monograph and how it might differ from other examples of disability history with the politics concerning diagnosis in France that continues today. Also, as someone in French history who has become known for the “autism project” I wanted to make sure that work was seen in the context of the broader field of disability history.

Jessie: As Jonathyne says, Rebecca reached out because we’ve talked and done panels together on disability history at conferences over the years. It’s honestly really exciting to see enough interest in the topic to have a forum like this; I remember trying to organize a panel for one of the big French history conferences when I was a grad student and only receiving one reply on H-France.

How did you first become interested in disability history?

Rebecca: Many years ago, when I was finishing my master’s at the University of Georgia, I got a job working in a university research center focused on disability. I was part of a team designing a curriculum to train social workers in disability advocacy. Although I was little more than an administrative assistant, I learned a tremendous amount and was primed to think about disability as a historical problem. When I started the research for my PhD thesis, I was immediately drawn to debates about disabled veterans and radio, and began delving into disability studies literature to contextualize my sources.

My second book project got its start in the family history of a dear friend, Zina Weygand (herself a historian of blindness). Her father, Maurice Didier, was a polio survivor and hosted a short-lived radio program about disability, which I ended up writing an article about. I realized how little had been written about polio, despite its importance in shaping rehabilitation and disability activism in France, and suddenly I had a new book project. I’ll add that Zina introduced me to numerous disabled activists and scholars in France, and those personal contacts also encouraged me to pursue this project.

Jonathyne: It started quite personally for me. I had received my first sabbatical from my institution and I was exploring the possibility of a long term research trip where I would take my family. However, my youngest is on the spectrum, so I learned about the difference between the forms of treatment in France and the US. This was also during the so-called bataille de l’autisme in the 2010s, so I was curious what led to what I have called the ‘French divergence.’ Also, my earlier work on youth culture got me thinking about looking at how disability and youth intersected in the postwar era. Once I got started, I also developed a class to help me understand the broader context of disability history in a transnational perspective.

Jessie: Thinking critically about disability history really started with grad school for me. I’m nondisabled but my dad is disabled due to an infection that led to sepsis when I was twelve. Reading classic works of disability studies recommended by my mentor, Catherine Kudlick, made a lot of things “click” about my family’s experience (let’s just say that the American healthcare system makes it easy to understand the disabling effects of governmental policies). I ended up writing about psychological disability in my first book on gender and the French psychiatric profession, but the experiences of disabled people as members of families—not simply as “patients”—is a constant in my work.

What do you most want readers to take away from the forum?

Rebecca: A sense of the enormous possibilities opened by disability history for thinking about big questions in new ways.

Jonathyne: The value of disability as a historical lens for rethinking about the French projects of human rights, assimilation, republicanism, centralization, and laicité, just to think of a few areas.

Jessie: That disability isn’t a niche topic!

Cartoon shows two musicians labelled Giraffier (Berthelier) and Patachon (Pradeau) in nineteenth-century dress. On the left, Giraffier plays a guitar with a notice round his neck saying 'aveugle par axin' while Patachon holds a trombone and wears a sign reading 'aveugle naissance'

How did the participants work together to assemble the forum? Was it different to how you normally work?

Jonathyne: Rebecca provided some guideposts to get the contributors to talk about their own research and also gave us opportunities to respond to each other. We were able to articulate aspects of disability history from our work but also in conversation with some emerging work. Moreover, we were asked to think about the broader framework on disability history in French historiography and assess its place now. I would say it represents a new normal of digital collaboration–working together across continents and time zones to share our individual insights.

Jessie: What Jonathyne said—Rebecca posed questions and we were invited to answer them and ask our own in dialog with the other participants. It was really rewarding to see everyone’s different approaches.

Rebecca: We worked on the forum for over a year, everyone adding contributions when they had time and responding to others’ ideas. I found the discussion about different approaches to disability in the French and American academies to be especially useful. Several of the contributions – regarding continuities in social and cultural responses to disability – helped me rethink some of the assumptions undergirding my current book project.

What do you most regret having to leave out of the forum?

Rebecca: All of the forum participants work on the history of the nineteenth or twentieth centuries, but there is very important work being done by scholars of France and Europe more broadly focused on earlier periods. We’ve cited some of this vital scholarship in our footnotes, but I don’t want people to come away from the forum thinking that disability history is limited to the modern period. There is also some new work-in-progress by doctoral students underway right now, so I expect to see some exciting theses, articles, and books on disability history emerging in the next few years.

Jonathyne: I would say that I wanted to emphasize more the challenge of writing disability history through ableist lenses, especially given that most sources come from that perspective no matter the time period.

Jessie: One thing I think about a lot is how to ethically do disability history as a nondisabled historian. For example, there are so many structural barriers that keep disabled people from becoming historians (now exacerbated by the defunding of higher ed and the disappearance of tenure track jobs) that I really strive to teach my classes and approach my career in ways that don’t perpetuate those barriers. I wish I’d have thought to bring this up in the forum to hear others’ thoughts.

Black and white print of the French sign language alphabet, showing how to make the letters by hand. It includes images of the abbés L'Épée (top right) and Sicard (top left).
The text at the bottom reads 'Charles Michel de l'Épée, né à Versailles, le 25 November 1712 institua l'enseignement des Sourds-Muets en 1760. Il mourut à Paris le 25 Novembre 1789. Vue loi des 21 et 29 Juillet érigea en Insitution Nationale l'Établissement qu'il avait fondé à ses frais.

Could you tell us a little about what you are working on next?

Rebecca: I’ve written the first two chapters of my next book, Polio and its Afterlives: Disability and Disease in Twentieth-Century France. The pandemic slowed down my work considerably, but I’m eager to bring the book to completion, in part because there are so many overlaps between how people discussed and debated polio in the 1930s-1950s and the way we talk about the COVID pandemic and its aftereffects now. There’s much we can learn from past epidemics, and now, with many people newly disabled by COVID, it’s urgent for us to learn from the past.

Jonathyne: I am finishing corrections on my monograph on autism in France. I think I might like to work on a short-term project that puts elements of my two research areas–popular music and disability–together. There are a number of musical collectives currently operating in France with neurodivergent members. I think that might make an interesting postscript to the book.

Jessie: Well, my book came out in December of 2020, which was a pretty bad time to start up new research! I finally made it to France last spring to investigate the history of syphilis. There are a lot of untapped connections between disability history and the history of sexuality, particularly with respect to national identity, natalism, and eugenics that I’d like to explore. Syphilis makes for an interesting case too because it has both physical and psychological manifestations, and there tends to be a sort of false dichotomy in the historiography between studies of physical versus psychological or mental disability.

If you could see one change in academia in the next five years, what would it be?

Rebecca: In the United States, we are witnessing unprecedented, organized assaults on higher education (and particularly the humanities) organized by right-wing politicians and capitalists. I am not sure how we reclaim control over our universities, but as long as businessmen are allowed to make decisions about which disciplines are important and why, we are all in danger. I would love to see a major shift in how the general public understands the value of the humanistic disciplines, but I think it unlikely this will happen in five years! On a more practical level, I would love to see universities and scholarly societies take disability seriously as part of their DEI initiatives. Disability is a vital, but often overlooked aspect of human experience, and university staff need to think seriously about accessibility and inclusion in new ways. We all have a lot to learn on this front.

Jonathyne: I would agree with Rebecca and I might add that I want to advocate for more disability-friendly universities, especially with outreach to neurodivergent students. I think this is an underserved population that continues to grow. The university should be a place for them to find their path just as for neurotypicals.

Jessie: Yes, to all of the above. It’s hard to pick one crisis to focus on, but if I could snap my fingers and make a wish for something to change, it would be the casualization of academic labor. Solidarity between academics at all ranks is the only thing that’s going to keep any of us safe, let alone allow for the production of vital new research.

Éclair or saucisson?

Rebecca: Tarte citron sans meringue

Jonathyne: Saucisson sec toujours.

Jessie: Saucisson, with a hunk of brie on a fresh baguette.


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