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Placing the history of artificial eardrums against the backdrop of medical consumerism and advertising culture, this chapter reveals how the commericalisation of assistive technologies can blur the boundaries between prosthetics and cures. Unlike assistive aids to hearing, artificial eardrums were initially constructed as a surgical prosthetic, a replacement of a damaged part to become integrated with a user’s body. By the 1880s, however, the device captured the imagination of British and American inventors and new manufacturing firms who distanced the surgical mark of the device while still adhering to standards of its design. As the device was invisible to both the observer and the wearer, their promotion as ‘cure’ rendered deafness as a sigma, a misery that required medico-technological intervention to integrate the deaf person into hearing society.
It was during the nineteenth century that specialist hospitals emerged, but medical specialisation was often ridiculed by general clinicians who took pride in having training and expertise that they felt equipped them to direct their skills at any kind of medical challenge. This chapter outlines the arguments put forward by those opposed to specialisation, tracing the evolution of the Royal Ear Hospital in London. It is a journey during which the scientific knowledge of the ear, and how to restore or improve its utility, made significant strides, but the hospital’s early battles evolved around establishing the medical credibility of its aural specialists. The chapter shows how specialist hospitals came to define the parameters of deafness as a disability or defect requiring a cure, how this perception has influenced wider societal views on the necessity of medical interventions ever since and how this is in stark contrast to counter views of deafness as a distinct cultural or linguistic identity.
The Victorian era, encompassing the latter six decades of the nineteenth century, was a period by which significant areas of the British Isles had become industrialised and urbanised. Both processes exacerbated the extent of impairing conditions, ranging from industrial injury through the prevalence of debilitating physiological illnesses. Disability and the Victorians: attitudes, interventions, legacies brings together the work of eleven scholars and focuses on the history of disability and, while showcasing the work of a diverse gathering of historians, also gives a flavour of how disability history engages the work of scholars from other disciplines and how they, in turn, enhance historical thought and understanding. Equally, while the focus is on the Victorian era, a time during which society changed significantly, both at the bottom and from the top, it was also a time in which patterns developed that were to have an enduring influence. Therefore, a taste of that enduring influence is presented in chapters that suggest the resilience of Victorian thought and practices in the modern era. Consequently, an underlying aim is to encourage readers to take a broad view, both of ‘disability’ and of Victorian influences and values.
‘Disability’ is a wide and multifaceted concept and Victorian elites drew heavily on a whole range of ways of classifying not only sections within society but also behaviours that they considered to be socially and morally deviant. Notably, through the application of Poor Laws in the United Kingdom and beyond, what Victorians were guided by their perceptions, on the one hand, of able-bodiedness and the ability to perform productive and self-supporting work and, on the other hand, of people who were disabled from working through a range of physical, sensory and mental impairments. They increasingly tried to differentiate between those whom they considered to be worthy of aid and those they deemed to be unworthy of assistance and support, through being unable or unwilling to find employment. The chapters presented in this collection represent some of the ways in which support was offered or withheld and how those deemed to be worthy of such support were identified.
This chapter explores the interrelationships between embodied knowledge and assistive technology. Its primary focus is on interwar developments to respiratory technologies in Britain, but explores more broadly the extent to which consideration of users and user involvement has featured in the design of various technologies to facilitate breathing. The chapter uses under-utilised primary sources from the National Archives and the Royal Institution to examine mechanical respirators such as the Bragg-Paul Pulsator, then develop this user-focused framework to consider the later rise of ambulatory oxygen for home use. Considering how users have mattered in respiratory assistive technology highlights the problems with prosthetic designs which fail to consider the full social worlds of the user. Understanding these problems necessitates awareness of the longer history of their development and the longer-term problems inherent to ownership of the air. This relates to the politics of nationalised healthcare because ambulatory oxygen was outsourced from NHS pharmacy control in 2006. The chapter therefore concludes with a discussion of how standardised technology currently affects diverse users’ ability to engage with assistive technologies.