Our celebrations of UK Disability History Month started with an entertaining and informative talk by Professor Jaipreet Virdi, an award winning activist, writer and historian. Professor Virdi presented compelling arguments about ideas of disability, views of deafness in 20th century America and explored the evolution of hearing aids.
If you missed the event, for a limited period you can watch the pre-recorded lecture here. This includes BSL interpretation and captions.
You can also find out more in Professor Verdi’s book, Hearing Happiness.
Why not see what other events we are running to celebrate UKDHM?
Sarah K. Hitchen, PhD student Manchester Metropolitan University
For many people with schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders, the people who initially identify that something is wrong are not medics, but family members. A quick internet search reveals numerous websites and fact sheets providing information and advice for family and friends who are concerned that a loved one has developed a serious mental illness. We can trace the idea that human beings instinctively recognise mental disorder in others back to the early modern period. In the seventeenth-century, the perceptions of friends and family were as important in identifying mental illness as they are today. An excellent example of this can be found in the autobiographical writings of Oxfordshire gentlewoman, Dionys Fitzherbert (c.1580 – c.1641)
Between 1608 and 1610, Dionys described an extended period of significant emotional and psychic distress. She writes of an hallucination, imagining that ‘Charterhouse Yard … should flow with the matter that came out of my mouth, and did assuredly think all the bed and clothes were as wet with it as might be’. She suffered delusions in which she believed that she was not her parents’ child, but was the long dead-sister of a friend. She encountered suicidal thoughts and at the same time she feared that her family would have her put to death. Her thoughts were confused and fractured. Just like many people who suffer from severe mental illness today, Fitzherbert did not recognise that she was unwell. In fact, she believed that she was suffering from a spiritual affliction. Her family and friends, however, were frightened by her behaviour, and believing her to be mentally ill placed her in the care of doctors.
human beings instinctively recognise mental disorder in others
But how did Fitzherbert’s family know she was mentally ill? After all, as Kate Hodgkin tells us, the seventeenth century was a time during which there was only a fine line between madness and religious despair. It was the family’s perception of Fitzherbert’s behaviour that was key. Knowing her as well as they did, Fitzherbert’s relatives were able to identify her mental illness because they identified Dionys’s thoughts and behaviours as ‘bizarre’. In 1958 psychiatrist H. C. Rumke coined the phrase the ‘praecox feeling’, or the ‘praecox experience’, which referred to ‘a characteristic feeling of bizarreness experienced by a psychiatrist while encountering a person with schizophrenia’.  Although never formally made part of diagnosis, Rumke argued that the ‘praecox feeling’ was a central part of the diagnostic experience and this notion was echoed by psychiatrists throughout Europe during the twentieth century. This feeling of bizarreness was also experienced by the non-medically trained. In the 1960’s psychiatrist Wilhelm Mayer-Gross said that the words ‘bizarre’, ‘queer’ and ‘absurd’ were often used to convey ‘the reaction of the non-schizophrenic towards the patient’. Although use of the ‘praecox feeling’, has declined as a diagnostic element, it is still referred to by psychiatrists today, some of whom believe it to be ‘a real determinant of medical decision making in schizophrenia’.
Is this the feeling that Dionys Fitzherbert’s relatives experienced? If so the idea that human beings instinctively know when a person is suffering severe psychic distress, and the way that it seemingly transcends space and time provides us with a clear link between perceptions of madness in the past and modern experiences of mental illness.
This research is part of a PhD funded by the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP)
Dr Kai Syng Tan, an artist based at MMU and a member of the ‘Cultures of Disability’ research group was commissioned to produce film for the BBC this summer, as part of the BBC Arts’ Culture In Quarantine initiative, which has brought the arts into people’s homes during lockdown.
Dr Kai Syng Tan is one of twelve D/deaf, neurodivergent and disabled professional artists based in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland who have been commissioned to produce new film and audio works for BBC platforms, many of which explore the experience of living through Covid-19.
Lamia Dabboussy, BBC Head of Arts says: “This batch of commissions from artists across the country showcases the breadth of inspiring work we’ve all missed experiencing over this past lockdown year”
How to Thrive in 2050! 8 Tentacular Workouts For A Tantalising Future! is a brilliant and creative film – congratulations to Dr Kai Syng Tan! For more of her work see her webpage.
Early Modern Europe was an aural world. Despite the invention of print and the rise in literacy, speech was still the main form of communication: it was at the heart of religious worship and legal practice. In a world based around the spoken word, what about those who struggled to hear or who couldn’t speak?
Early modern priests worried about whether prelingually deaf people could enter heaven. A stumbling block for many was the assertion by St Paul that ‘faith comes by hearing’ and ‘by the mouth, confession is made unto salvation’: how could deaf men and women either come to know God or perform the necessary sacraments?
It was a problem that troubled Catholics and Protestants: they worried about how to communicate with deaf and deafened people, and how to help those same people to take part in Church sacraments. Dominican Friars – who had a tradition of using their fingers to remember parts of their sermons – introduced finger spelling to help men and women make their confessions when speech was not possible. In the following centuries, a Benedictine monk, Pedro Ponce de Leon, taught deaf children to lip read and so to communicate by ‘speaking’ in Spanish. As a result, deaf children of Spanish noblemen were able to make wills, inherit their parents’ wealth, make confession and attend Church services. Pedro Ponce de Leon’s efforts were carried on in Spain by Juan Pablo Bonet, who published a guide to teaching deaf children to ‘speak’: Reduccion de Las Letras (1620).1
These early efforts at Deaf Education prefigured the Oralist movement of the nineteenth century, when prelingually deaf children were encouraged to speak and lipread in their native languages rather than using sign language, but at the same time as Spanish children were being taught to speak vocally, elsewhere in Europe sign language was being recognised as a valid alternative to oral speech in Church ceremonies.
Catholics and Protestants ensured deaf signers could take part in Church ceremonies
In seventeenth-century Geneva, the Catholic Bishop, Francis de Sales prepared a prelingually deaf boy, Martin, for communion using sign language. Martin ‘could express by signs good and evil thoughts of the mind, perfect and imperfect consent of the will, and the difference between mortal and venial sin’. In seventeenth-century Protestant England, it was reported that the ‘gestures and zealous signs’ of a prelingually deaf gentleman, Edward Gostwicke, ‘’procur’d and allow’d him admittance to sermons, to prayers [and] to the Lord’s supper’. Increase Mather recorded a prelingually deaf woman taking the Eucharist in colonial America, writing that those ‘born, or by any accident made Deaf and Dumb … [who are] able by signs (which are analogous to verbal expressions) to declare their knowledge and faith; may as freely be received to the Lords supper as any that shall orally make the like profession.’
Language, of course, relies on mutual understanding and so for the signs to have a legal status they needed to be agreed and accepted by all the parties involved – notably the hearing ministers. Two marriages in early modern England show the problems – and benefits – of using sign language as an alternative to oral speech. In 1618, a prelingually deaf man, Thomas Speller, married Sara Earle after getting permission from the chancellor of the diocese of London and the Lord Chief Justice, who agreed in advance the signs that Speller would use to show his consent. Fifty years earlier in Leicestershire, another prelingually deaf man, Thomas Tilsye, married using sign language. To show his willingness to marry his bride, Ursula Russell, he enacted elements of the wedding ceremony: ‘first, he embraced her with his arms, and took her by the hand, put a ring upon her finger, and laid his hand upon her heart, and held his hands towards heaven; and to show his continuance to dwell with her to his life’s end, he did it by closing of his eyes with his hands, and digging out of the earth with his foot, and pulling as though he would ring a bell’.
Tilsye’s marriage shows the power of sign language, and visual kinetic languages were increasingly seen as a valid alternative to oral speech – and not just for deaf people. The British Civil Wars revealed the limitations of speech in political discourse, and from the mid-seventeenth century there was a growing interest in manual languages as an alternative to vocal speech. In 1644, John Bulwer published a handbook of hand signs, Chironomia & Chirologia, in which he argued that physical gestures were a ‘language more natural and significant’ than oral speech. John Bulwer later explored the importance of sign language for deaf people but like other linguists working in this field, he argued that sign languages had benefits for everyone. Sign language was not just a substitute for speech, but captured truths that were beyond human words. Bulwer argued that sign language was God-given to hearing and deaf alike: it was the ‘Dialect of his Divine hands’. Early modern Europe may have been an aural world but it was a visual one too, and this increased interest in sign language helped to assimilate deaf and hard of hearing people into a world of speech.2
Dr Rosamund Oates @drrosamundoates email@example.com
All images from John Bulwer, Chrirologia & Chironomia (London, 1644) from Folger Shakespeare Library, (CC BY-SA 4.0).