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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
July 2022
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Book description

Colonising Disability explores the construction and treatment of disability across Britain and its empire from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Esme Cleall explores how disability increasingly became associated with 'difference' and argues that it did so through intersecting with other categories of otherness such as race. Philanthropic, legal, literary, religious, medical, educational, eugenistic and parliamentary texts are examined to unpick representations of disability that, overtime, became pervasive with significant ramifications for disabled people. Cleall also uses multiple examples to show how disabled people navigated a wide range of experiences from 'freak shows' in Britain, to missions in India, to immigration systems in Australia, including exploring how they mobilised to resist discrimination and constitute their own identities. By assessing the intersection between disability and race, Dr Cleall opens up questions about 'normalcy' and the making of the imperial self.


'An important book on the history of British colonialism and its connection to disability and dDafness. Well-written and researched, this work will make a significant contribution to the growing importance of global studies around disability. Two chapters on Deafness in the colonies and the metropole enlighten us the importance of the 'deaf mute' to the ideology of domination and control in the British empire.'

Lennard Davis - University of Illinois Chicago

'Esme's penetrating social, cultural and historical text demonstrates the many ways in which disability played into imperial anxieties about race, gender and class, from concerns about national fitness to ideas about what and who was sexually deviant. This superb book is very much about the past - but it has much to offer the present - not least in helping us to understand and grapple with our current times marked by political populism, isolationism and nationalism.'

Dan Goodley - University of Sheffield

'The dearth of published scholarship on nineteenth-century disability discourses and experiences in the British Empire is a well-known problem in our understanding of crucial cultural histories. Cleall’s stunning research achievement meets this need with specific attention to discourses of disability, race, gender, and class in the British Empire: mutually inflecting and reinforcing constructions of 'difference' with pervasive and longstanding effects on the distribution of social goods. The book is a stunning research achievement and resource, but what may be even more compelling about it is Cleall’s ability to situate the work in context of the disciplinary histories that inform it. Her care in articulating the necessary limits of this ambitious volume notwithstanding, the book is a major contribution towards generative change in multiple fields, including the anti-ableist, anti-racist undisciplining of colonial studies and disability studies. Its significance cannot be overstated.'

Martha Stoddard Holmes - California State University

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