Disability History Lecture 2

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Dr. Ylva Söderfeldt -- University of Aachen -- April 25th 2013 at KU Leuven -- Understanding disability with Habermas and vice versa: The German Deaf movement and the public sphere. Since the education of deaf people was institutionalized in the late 18th century, a new kind of deaf person emerged in increasing numbers: the educated deaf man, who independently supported himself as an artisan, craftsman, or professional. Like other propertied and cultivated urban men in the 19th century, they formed clubs and associations for socializing, manifesting their status, and advocating their interests. However, they encountered considerable obstacles even in their seemingly unconfrontational endeavours to form their communities and improve their social condition. As their entitlement to participate in the discussion and decision-making concerning deafness and the deaf was not accepted among the hearing experts and authorities, their attempts to be acknowledged as members of the public sphere failed. In this lecture, I will analyze the strategies developed by the deaf movement in response to their disqualification from the sphere of public reasoning. I will argue that the processes of power and exclusion I uncovered within the 19th and early 20th century deaf movement resemble the situation of most emancipation movements by disadvantaged people. Furthermore, I will ask why the deaf were unable to enter the public sphere, even though they fulfilled the criteria of "property and education". I will offer an explanation based on Habermas' work on the bourgeois public sphere, while also suggesting that considering the role played by disability adds a new dimension to his model.

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