Where’s My Shelf?

I was at one of those big chain-bookstores the other day, with a gift certificate burning a figurative hole in my wallet, just begging to be used. I’d even planned ahead for the inevitable “Error 404: File Not Found” of name retrieval, and written down a list of authors and titles of the dozen books for which I was looking. Not that I had really expected to find all of those books, but not that the gift certificate was that big anyway.After pausing to check out all the spiffy bookmarks (“Ooh, shiny!”) I wandered over to the rack between sociology and history.

“Women’s studies, Men’s studies,” (small section, that) “Gay/Lesbian studies, African-American studies, Latino studies, Hawaiian Islander studies,” (wow, we’re no where near the Pacific) “Native American studies … History of Ancient Egypt.”

Wait a minute, missed it. Given my profound ability to be “nose-blind” and miss seeing something right under my nose, I back-tracked and started over. Nope. Okay, maybe the books I’m looking for are filed under some other category. Just because something makes sense to me doesn’t mean it’s true – after all, the grocery keeps the baked beans by the tins of luncheon meat rather than with the tins of vegetables where I would expect to find them …

After duly waiting in the Information queue, I hand my list to the clerk who patiently pecks the names through the store’s search engine. By the time she has reached the end of my list, she is frowning in sympathetic frustration, and informs me that they only have one of the books, which has to be ordered from some distant warehouse. I politely decline, realizing that instant gratification is simply not going to be had, and decide to do my own search-engine pecking with the county library system.

What I found odd was not that they did not have the particular books for which I was searching – I tend to read offbeat stuff, not the latest poolside romance. Rather, what I found odd was that there were not any books on disability studies to be had at all. The section simply did not exist anywhere in the store, not between sociology and history like the other group-studies, not in the psychology or the special education or the history sections.

You want to hear some interesting numbers?

In the United Kingdom there are 9.8 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 7.
In Canada there are 3.6 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 8.
In the United States there are 49.7 million people with some sort of disability, about 1 in 5.
(As with any epidemiological information, census definitions may differ slightly.)

Either way, that’s a LOT of people; the largest minority within most populations. So how the hell do people go about referring to “them” like they’re rara avis, some minor, marginal sector of sub-humanity? Everyone must know several people with disabilities, whether they realise it or not.

So why are disabled people so invisible and neglected by history? The answers are complex. Part of this is due to the fact that the largest minority is also the most diverse: disabled people include babies, the elderly, people with sensory differences such as the Deaf or blind, people with learning disabilities, people with cognitive processing differences such as autistics or the faceblind, people with developmental or acquired physical differences such as cerebral palsy, people with chronic health problems … Some disabilities are highly visible, and many are invisible.

Another part of the issue is that disability is something feared, shunned, and to be avoided. It is seen as abnormal, defective, deviant and pathological. Disabled people until very recently were shut away in institutions (and often still are), were not schooled (and often still are not) or were segregated in separate schools (and often still are), and no matter what the disability were seen as imbeciles and therefore not deserving or needing status as full citizens capable of making their own decisions (and often still are). The disabled are considered only as, and are seen only as patients and clients. They weren’t people to be considered as a positive and common group, or a social force.

But just as one can now find histories and university programs and shelves of books about Women’s Studies, and find histories and university programs and shelves of books about Gay & Lesbian Studies, we can now find find histories and university programs and –

– well, histories and a few university programs about Disability Studies.

I’m going to buy myself another bookcase. I need more shelves.