Ancient Greek images of disability permeate the Western consciousness: Homer, Teiresias, and Oedipus immediately come to mind. But The Staff of Oedipus looks at disability through the lens of disability studies, uncovering the realities of daily life for people with disabilities in ancient Greece and revealing that our interpretations of disability in the ancient world have been colored, often falsely, by contemporary ideas of pity and charity. These false assumptions in turn bolster modern-day discriminatory attitudes toward disability by giving such attitudes an apparent historical precedent.
The Staff of Oedipus looks at a wide range of writing on disability within the framework of ancient social history. Martha L. Rose examines not only ancient literature, but also evidence from papyri, skeletal remains, inscriptions, sculpture, and painting, as well as modern sources, including disability autobiographies, medical research, and the burgeoning scholarship and theoretical work in the field of disability studies.
The book examines five narratives of disability in ancient Greece. It begins by sketching the diversity of the Greek population, which was far more varied than is portrayed in the images of Greek perfection found in Renaissance and neoclassical painting. The second chapter discusses daily life for people with disabilities, arguing against the popular modern idea that all "deformed" babies in ancient Greece were killed at birth. The third chapter looks at the case of Demosthenes' stutter in examining the modern ideal of overcoming disability. Chapter 4 highlights differences between ancient and modern understandings of disability by showing that the Greeks perceived deafness as an intellectual impairment rather than as a physical disability. Chapter 5 challenges the notion that the Greeks always considered blindness to be either a horror or a blessing. Rose concludes her persuasive study by challenging the translation of the Greek term adunatos (unable) as "disabled," with all its modern associations.