Disability and the Middle Ages, or, How to Count Your Blessings Stupid



Medieval image: the blinding of Samson’




No. This is not a scholarly paper. Concerning the middle ages and disability I’ll say only this—prior to the Enlightenment disability was conceived as a punishment from god or a mark of  dishonesty for disfigurement or blinding was a social punishment as Oedipus well knew. Therefore laughing at the disabled was either a religious matter or a village sport. Parading cripples through the streets was a vulgar form of comedy. This comes to mind often if you have any kind of disability for the contemporary public carries vestiges of the medieval unconscious. 


There’s been a lot of cheap comedy following the South African sign language interpreter incident. Disabled people don’t think the sport is amusing. Bill Peace over at Bad Cripple writes about the unrefined quality of the media responses to the affair:


I saw Stephen Colbert mock what took place. I was not impressed. Sorry but I find absolutely nothing funny about what took place in South Africa. All I can think of is the few deaf people I know and how they struggle to communicate in the hearing world. I wonder why is ASL not taught in every elementary school in America? Most importantly, why has the fraud become a joke?


There are two interesting rhetorical questions here. We know why the fraud has become a joke: disability has never stopped being a joke. It was always a joke because god willed it so—the infirm, the unseeing, the deaf were put on this earth to make “fit people” count their blessings. This is why American churches are not required to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Don’t delude yourself: the cripples are not among the elect. They never were. 


So an ersatz sign language interpreter standing behind the President of the United States and gesticulating wildly, giving the finger to the crowd and making meaningless geometries in the air—well, that’s an incitement for ancient village laughter. Normal people never make a distinction between fake disability (which is funny) and real disability (which is funny) and Praise Be to God when the two subjects are combined. 


That’s an answer to Peace’s second rhetorical question. His first, why ASL isn’t taught in every elementary school, has just as much to do with the middle ages as the first. The aim of public education in the US isn’t to advance communication but to diminish it. If you’re child’s fate is to be a serf, why fill her up with abstruse nonsense like language skills or art? 


Its been my experience that the vast majority of “normal” people have no idea what their respective degrees of physical privilege really mean—or, in turn, how much that privilege colors their understanding of society. This is why Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart or Rachel Maddow or the Today Show are largely no better (either individually or collectively) than a village farce when it comes to understanding the social construction of normalcy and its deleterious effects.    

Free speech is a tautology. Its primary clause is comedy. In its medieval guise it reassures normal people they’re still elect. 



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