A History of Disability

1st Edition
Henri-Jacques Stiker
Translated by William Sayers
A bold analysis of the evolution of Western attitudes toward disability, available for the first time in English


The increasing numbers of scholars, policy-makers, and political activists who are concerned with questions of physical and cognitive disability will warmly welcome Henri-Jacques Stiker's book, the first to attempt to provide a framework for analyzing disability through the ages. Published in 1997 in France as Corps infirmes et sociétés and available now in an excellent English translation, the book traces the history of western cultural responses to disability, from ancient times to the present.

In this volume, Stiker examines a fundamental issue in contemporary Western discourse on disability: the cultural assumption that equality/sameness/similarity is always desired by those in society. He highlights the consequences of such a mindset, illustrating the intolerance of diversity and individualism that arises from placing such importance on equality. Importantly, Stiker does not hesitate to assert his own stance on the issues he discusses: that difference is not only acceptable, but that it is desirable, that it is necessary.

The author goes beyond anecdotal history to traverse a little known history, penetrating to the heart of collective attitudes and reflecting on elements of policy. The sweep is broad; from a rereading and reinterpretation of the Oedipus myth to current legislation regarding disablity, he proposes an analytical history that demonstrates how societies reveal themselves through their attitudes towards disability, at times in unexpected ways, since the study of detail is often the best entry into the whole of a culture. The book will be of interest to scholars of disability, historians, social scientists, cultural anthropologists, and those who are intrigued by the role that culture plays in the development of language and thought surrounding the disabled.

Henri-Jacques Stiker is director of research at Laboratoire "Identités, cultures, territoires" at Université Paris-Diderot, Paris 7, and is co-founder and editorial director of ALTER, European Journal of Disability Research. He is the author of Culture brisée, culture à naîtreCorps infirmes et sociétés;  Pour le débat démocratique, la question du handicap;  Les fables peintes du corps abîmé, les images de l’infirmité du XVIè au XXè siècle;  Les métamorphoses du handicap de 1970 à nos jours, soi-même avec les autres; and Religions et handicap, interdit, péché, symbole, une analyse anthropologique.

Praise / Awards

  • "[Stiker's] challenge to those of us who are concerned with disability is to question our faith in the desirability of sameness and to challenge the dissolution that that faith requires."
    Ragged Edge
  • "A History of Disability should be read by everyone interested in any aspect of Disability Studies and every library should own a copy. The brilliant conceptualization of disability makes this an indispensable tool in Disability Studies."
    Disability Studies Quarterly
  • "Henri-Jacques Stiker's reflection on the exclusion of disabled bodies, the product of vast anthropological, historical, and social research, is a rigorous and passionate meditation. It ranges from the Oedipus myth through the Bible, the Gospels, Islam, mysticism, philosophy, and biology, all the way to current legislation . . . Stiker leads us to see people with disabilities as ourselves---not as machines but as explorers of the impossible."
    —Julia Kristeva
  • "[P]rovides tools for readers to explore how terms such as 'assimilation,' 'integration,' and 'inclusion' came to be so problematic in today's contests over identity. At the same time, it urges us to question our ultimate social and political goals, while asking where our ideals originate and what they say about modern civilization."
    American Historical Review

Look Inside


Foreword by David T. Mitchell     vii
Translator's Note by William Sayers     xv
Preface to the 1997 Edition by Henri-Jacques Stiker     xix

1. Introduction     1
2. The Bible and Disability: The Cult of God     23
3. Western Antiquity: The Fear of the Gods     39
4. The System(s) of Charity     65
5. The Classical Centuries: The Chill     91
6. The Birth of Rehabilitation     121
Epilogue     191

Appendix: Stages in the Legislation     201
Notes     207
Selected Bibliography     231

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 264pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2000
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11063-6

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  • $88.00 U.S.

  • Paper
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08626-9

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  • $27.95 U.S.