Objects and Disability

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With the Rio Paralympics starting, it has made me think about how we relate disability to the visual. Some kinds of disability are immediately apparent to society, whilst others remain hidden. What role do objects have in determining who is 'disabled'? I'm interested in what museum displays about disability can tell us about our attitudes towards disability.


The story of the 'Superhumans' is a very common one when we discuss disability. The appeal of this narrative is in overcoming adversity and highlighting people with disabilities who excel despite major challenges. One thing which you can see is just how much this is mediated and influenced by technology. Prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs of various different kinds are very visible in the trailer for the Paralympic Games, although many athletes do not use (or are not permitted to use) these in their sports. The disabilities here are easy to see, but what about disabilities which are just as significant for people's everyday lives but which are hidden? How might they be represented? A very short section of sign language indicates an awareness of the Deaf community, but the dominant narrative is about physical disability and limb loss in particular.


World War One was a watershed moment in the development of new prosthetics. The increased prevalence and visibility of limb loss amongst soldiers returning from the front necessitated the production of more prosthetic legs and arms. Along with advances in surgery and blood transfusion, this was an important transformation in the treatment and management of combat-related injuries.

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Shell shock was effectively a new condition, with doctors theorising that the traumatic experience of trench warfare caused severe damage to the nervous system. This caused involuntary movement, psychoses, and other common symptoms such as hearing loss and delirium. This was for many a shameful and hidden disability which could not be alleviated by mass-produced, albeit uncomfortable, prostheses. Even civilians were diagnosed with cases of neuritis, nervous debility and 'war nerves' as anxieties surrounding the conflict began to affect people beyond those immediately engaged in combat. Although we can reflect now on this footage of a shell shock victim, it makes me wonder how individuals who suffered from the condition experienced life when they returned home. What was family life like? How were they supported once they had left medical care? Was shell shock really a 'new' condition at all?