Jan. 15, 2019

An Activist History of Disability in Canada – book review by Emily Gillespie


We are really happy to be sharing the views of our newest Blogger for DAWN Canada, Emily Gillespie. Emily holds a Bachelor's Degree in Gender Equality and Social Justice, and completed her Master's Degree in Critical Disability Studies at York University. Emily's book review and her voice represent an important and too often over-looked perspective in the disability sector – that of young women. She lives in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @emilygillespiem




The anthology Untold Stories: A Canadian Disability History Reader, edited by Nancy Hansen, Roy Hanes and Diane Driedger explores the often erased history of people with disabilities in Canada from Confederation to present. The text is written for scholars, students, and anyone interested in disability issues. The anthology invites the reader to not only consider the erased history of people with disabilities in Canada, but how historical ideologies connect to current experiences of disability. This book contributes to the interdisciplinary field of Disability Studies, which moves away from thinking about disability using a medicalized approach, but rather adopts a social framework. The anthology is also a contribution to the growing field of disability history, which seeks to include disability in the historical landscape. The anthology highlights key issues for each period while addressing the overarching themes of agency, resistance and activism.

The book begins by addressing the erasure of disability history from mainstream cultural spaces like museums and the fight for inclusion in said spaces as a political act that can shift the “socio-cultural comfort zone surrounding disability history” (46). Each section of the book is carefully curated to explore how disability was understood at different points in history, and also how people with disabilities resisted said narratives. The book addresses how underlying ideas about disability resulted in ableist understandings of what constitutes good citizenship. The section “Confederation to the Early Twentieth Century” explores the governments push to make people with disabilities economically contributing members of society through education and training. “Into the Mid-twentieth Century” continues the discussion of the growth of institutions and the idea that people with disabilities were considered a social threat because of “economic concerns” (164). “The 1960s to the 1980s” focuses on the activism of people with disabilities when they moved out of institutions and navigated societies that were largely inaccessible, from subways to workplaces. The final section, “To the End of the Twentieth Century and Beyond” addresses the continued fight for independence and full inclusion, exploring re-occurring topics such as accommodation at work.

This book’s objective was to challenge the removal of people with disabilities from Canadian history. This text successfully contributes to the larger project of re-telling history and “uncovering disability or putting it back in the historical landscape” (2). While people with disabilities are stereotypically represented as passive, this book succeeds in challenging this representation, demonstrating the historical and continued agency and resistance by people with disabilities. The examples in the book of agency and activism range from individual advocacy for workplace inclusion, to the creation of advocacy groups, such as the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.  

The text operates from a cross-disability lens, meaning that while the work considers the activism of people with specific disabilities, it is inclusive of people with all disabilities. The chapters are also reflective of the expansive geography of Canada, covering issues specific to both urban and rural demographics. While each chapter is written by a different author, they begin to use an intersectional lens, for instance addressing class, gender and race in relation to disability.

This collection is connected through the discussion of citizenship and disability. This theme of citizenship is used in demonstrating not only disability history, but how this connects to present disability politics, contributing to the books larger argument about the significance of disability history. For example, Laurence Parent discusses how the Montréal Métro was a source of pride and was built for ‘all’ citizens of Montreal. People with disabilities were not considered during the design, and were subsequently excluded from city life. While exclusion was framed as natural, Parent demonstrates how exclusion is constructed. Philip Turcotte, in a chapter about eugenic history in Alberta also links historic ideas about citizenship to the present, arguing that contemporary discourses have historical roots particularly relating to the “regulation of disability, as well as conceptualization of disability as a social threat” (192). This connects to how disability is understood at present, and the emphasis on concepts like productivity. The book explores the origins of ableist thinking, providing the historical lens to dismantle this logic.

This anthology begins to re-write disability history in Canada, yet does not sufficiently acknowledge or challenge the colonial framework of the period. The introduction argues that the book is an attempt to “put disabled people back into the history of Canada, to show their rich and diverse relationship with the rest of Canadian society from Confederation...”(1). There is no acknowledgement of how Canada was settled, Confederation is used as a logical place to begin and who is included in “Canadian society” is insufficiently challenged. Indigenous people were not significantly included in the anthology until the final section. This book is intended to be a retelling of disability history in Canada, yet who has access to this history is still coming from a privileged space as it is written by academics, largely to students and scholars. The anthology does not significantly acknowledge the contemporary work of activists outside of academia who are working to uncover disability history, such as the online work of disability advocates, suggesting that a particular type of knowledge is prioritized. The final section of the book explores contemporary disability issues, yet misses the opportunity to further connect history to the present, or have a call to action though a conclusion.

The anthology provides a snapshot of disability history in Canada, from a cross-disability framework. The work shows the unique political challenges of each period, while also addressing re-occurring themes such as citizenship. The text challenges histories of erasure and shows people with disabilities as active participants in social movements as well as their own lives. The book’s treatment of the subject does not go far enough to dismantle the colonial framework of Canadian history, or include people with disabilities outside of academia. This anthology is an early collection of disability history in Canada, and creates space for more stories, and perhaps more ways of thinking about disability history to emerge.


Work Cited

Hansen, Nancy, et al., editors. Untold Stories: A Canadian Disability History Reader. Canadian Scholars, 2018.