En route to our hotel the first night we spent in Brussels, Belgium, this past June, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of a store window despite the fact that I was more than ready to hit the sack after surviving our marathon day of trans-Atlantic travel and touring. It didn’t take long for Tyler to realize why I was so engrossed. There, in the middle of Brussels, a Bandagiste (or a store that sells orthopedic and related supplies) displayed a mix of historic and contemporary examples of objects that feature (along with their users) prominently in my dissertation. From crutches to wheelchairs, the Bandagiste had it all, beckoning prospective customers (and one historian) in one of the busiest parts of Brussels.
Tyler and I planned to visit specific sites in Belgium and the UK on our trip, but I hadn’t really picked out any disability-related stuff to see.
It turns out it didn’t matter, because it found me.
On a train from Bruges to Brussels, for instance, I overheard one woman explain to her travel companions that there is a rail worker at one of the stops she frequents who is notorious for grumbling about providing the moveable ramp that links the platform to the train for her wheelchair. She also recounted how a friend’s commute lengthened by a half hour recently because the station he used was no longer accessible. Their anecdotes were endless. And during the remainder of our trip abroad, the insights kept coming.
At the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I immersed myself in the material culture of the cult of Britain’s maritime hero Horatio Nelson. I knew a surgeon (turns out to have been Thomas Eshelby, a ship’s surgeon) amputated Nelson’s arm after it was hit at Santa Cruz in 1797, but I was not aware how central the amputation became to Nelson’s identity and everyone else’s idea of him.
The amputated limb became a focal point for many likenesses made of Nelson even after he died from wounds received at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805. Check out this late ninteenth-century decanter below, for instance. It was difficult to choose which artifact to include here. Nelson adorned a lot of stuff, suggesting how much people liked having him around. Think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in the American context.
While perusing the Nelson gallery, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Desire Tripp, an eighteenth-century Newport Rhode Island working girl who highlighted her amputated arm on a gravestone it shared with her two babies.
Heck, I made her arm a focal point of my own arm.
Getting better acquainted with Nelson suddenly made Desire seem less unusual (but not less unique).
And so in honor of the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Americans With Disabilities Act, here are some of my recent #disabilitystories (the social media “hashtag” for today) from abroad. My encounters with disability history and material culture on our recent trip started with that Bandagiste but did not end with Nelson. More importantly, they won’t end back in the States, either. I can’t wait to dive back into the archives today, on the lookout for hard-to-find but oh-so-fascinating early American #DisabilityStories.
What’s your #DisabilityStory?
Click here to learn more about the National Museum of American History’s (the Smithsonian) initiative to share #DisabilityStories today. Everyone is encouraged to participate.
A related initiative is the ADA Legacy Project. The web site will give you information about all the ADA 25 celebrations that are going on this year.
And be sure to navigate over to the fantastic project in Britain called Disability and Industrial Society. I wrote a blog post for them a few years ago about what I learned from collecting disability history.
To learn more about Desire Tripp and her arm’s grave stone, check out the essay I wrote about it at Common-Place.