Prof Jonathan Sterne will be one of the panelists during Disabilities Awareness Week for Mind the Gap: Putting Disability Studies on the agenda at McGill on Thursday, March 15 from 2-4 p.m. in Leacock 232. For a full list of events that week see http://mcgillosd.blogspot.com/ or pass by the OSD in the Brown building to see what’s happening.
You’re a Professor in Art History and Communication Studies; what drew you to disability studies?
I was doing research for my first book on the origins of sound reproduction technology. It’s well-known that Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher of the deaf, but I found in going through his work that a big part of his insights that led to the telephone came from his oralist approach to the deaf. As an elocutionist, he tried to train deaf children to speak as if they could hear, in the hopes of eradicating all cultural vestiges of deafness (which is why he is a villain in much deaf history today). At one point, he tried out a machine called the phonautograph that made tracings from people’s voices on a piece of smoked glass. His idea was that it was a machine to “hear for” the deaf kids, who could then see the results of their speech. It didn’t work very well, but today every time hearing people pick up their phones, they are delegating their hearing to machinery just like Bell’s deaf children. So instead of Bell getting the deaf to act like the hearing, in the age of telephony, the hearing now act like the deaf.
How has Disability Studies influenced your own work?
In my work on sound, it helped me to understand speech and hearing as plastic, contingent and mutable, rather than absolute faculties that are the same in everyone. I’m just starting a project that uses vocal and hearing damage to think through how we construct the lines between normal and abnormal sonic culture.
How can Disability Studies enrich the Liberal Arts?
It helps in at least two ways. The obvious way you’d expect is that it helps like feminism or postcolonial studies does – by representing a range of perspectives that is all-too-often still absent from discussions of culture and human experience. People with disabilities show up all the time in cultural theory, but usually not on their own terms and in a flattering way. In addition to the treatment of the deaf by scholars of sound, one need only have a passing acquaintance with the philosophical uses of “hypothetical blind people” or track academics’ abuse of the “turned a deaf ear toward” cliché to understand the problem.
But there is also a less obvious way in which disability studies helps the Liberal Arts. So much scholarship assumes the existence of a single, normal body as its point of departure. This is true in the most abstract cases of cultural theory, and in the most applied studies of economics, geography, usability or ethnography. A disability studies perspective helps us to apprehend what Tobin Siebers and others have called “the human variety,” and ultimately expand and in some cases explode our definitions of what it means to be human.
What article or book in the Disability Studies field has inspired you the most recently?
I had a blast teaching Graham Pullin’s Design Meets Disability last fall. The book offers some really engaging ways to think about the built and designed environment in relationship to disability, and challenges us to imagine design in new ways.