Writing Colonising Disability

By Esme Cleall

Colonising Disability (published by Cambridge University Press in 2022) is my attempt to understand how disability was understood in the nineteenth-century British Empire. When I started doing the research that fed into the book, around about ten years ago I had just started as a lecturer in the History of the British empire at the University of Sheffield. Academically speaking, I wanted to build on my doctoral research on nineteenth-century missionary attitudes to gender and race which had been recently published as Missionary Discourses of Difference

I was also grappling with my identity as a researcher with scoliosis, painful scar-tissue adhesions, mental health difficulties, dyslexia and, what has recently been diagnosed as, fibromyalgia; issues which may be described as ‘hidden disabilities’ (or in the case of my scoliosis, ‘almost hidden’ disabilities). Bringing together these personal, political and academic interests by investigating disability in the British empire therefore seemed a somewhat natural progression and I was delighted to start to absorb myself in the rich and diverse field of ‘disability studies’. 

This is a picture of the front cover of Colonising Disability: impairment and otherness in the British empire, c. 1800-1914. The picture on the front of the book is a photograph of a group of blind girls reading a Braille book whilst standing in a garden.

Disability as intersectional

One thing that struck me in doing this research was how disability intersects with (and can rupture, complicate or compound) other social constructs such as ‘race’, gender and class, that we might describe as ‘categories of difference’. I wanted to examine these intersections more closely especially as they emerged in hegemonic discourses around race, nation and empire. What I produced was not, therefore,  (as some would have liked it to be) a study in any depth about the lived experience of disability, though that comes into the stories I tell. In exploring disability I instead argued that disability history does not only mean looking at the lives of people labeled as disabled, but also at the wider discursive system that values the non-disabled body and mind, privileging ‘normative’ ways of being and othering those deemed different. It is an analysis of the ‘dominant’ discourse that Dan Goodley and other scholars of disability have increasingly named as ‘ableism’. These are processes which privilege a normative way of being; cherish particular forms of personhood and psychological health; assert the ‘naturalness’ of able-bodiedness;  promote an idealization of able-bodiedness; and indicate institutional bias towards autonomous and independent bodies; a systematic endorsement benefitting all people marked as able-bodied (Goodley, 2014). Ultimately, ableist agendas tend to privilege the young, male and white body. Ableist lines of inclusion and exclusion, made concrete through institutions, legislation, and other forms of praxis, not only had life-changing consequences for the people involved, but also attempted to construct a particular kind of nation, state or colony that was intolerant of difference of all kinds. In Colonising Disability I argued  that the ideological tenets of the British Empire relied on an ableist ideology, where practices of disablism abounded. 

A colourful depiction of the manual BSL alphabet, labelled 'The Dumb Alphabet or the Art of Talking with Your Fingers'.

An example: attitudes towards deafness

To take just one example of this, I might focus on the case of deafness (a way of being, I was particularly interested in having two Deaf cousins). Deafness, in the nineteenth century was, alongside learning disability, one of the ways of being that was most scathingly represented back in imperial Britain. Congenital deafness in particular was seen as a great concern both in marking those who experienced this form of deafness as ‘different’. 

I worked to think through the ways in which deafness was reconfigured in this period in particular through exploring changing attitudes towards sign language. As has been well documented in the case of the US (Baynton 1996), I found that attitudes towards sign language in Britain too changed considerably in the nineteenth century. At the end of the eighteenth century sign language was hailed as a way of communicating Christianity to deaf people otherwise unreachable to the Christian faith and, as such, it was pragmatically seen as a good means of communicating with deaf people. By the end of the nineteenth century, sign language was vilified as an inferior means of communication and through an International Conference held in Milan in the 1880s, formally discouraged as a means of communication and education. 

Using my training in postcolonial and critical colonial scholarship I was able to demonstrate links between these developments and wider processes at work in the British empire and  I argued that this was part of a wider trend not only of thinking about eugenics, but also of a colonial mindset that called the English language a ‘more advanced’ form of communication. 

Image credit: Hands showing the sign language alphabet. Line engraving. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

The imperial resonances of this can be seen in a range of contexts. The languages of Australian Aboriginal people were described as ‘too rudimentary’ to exist without being supplemented by signs. The decision to fund only English-language education in colonial India, as early as the 1830s and the suppression of the use of Gaelic and Welsh in the British Isles were other manifestations of this. Another reason why sign language started to be vilified in this period was because it was thought that the close-knit deaf communities whose growth it facilitated would lead to higher incidences of deaf inter-marriage back in Britain. Alexander Graham Bell, one of the inventors of the telephone and well-known eugenicist, for example argued that deaf intermarriage threatened to create, what he called ‘a deaf variety of the human race’. A ‘variety’ he saw as ‘inferior’ to ‘speaking’ varieties. Ultimately I argue that placing the debate about the use of sign language in an imperial context, points to the formative role that disability played in shaping the movement towards an increased intolerance of difference in this period.

Future work

The book is, of course, far from perfect. It’s at that stage after publication where I’m starting to see things I could have done differently. In particular I wish that I’d been able to root my findings more concretely in the lives of disabled people whose experiences are included in the book, but the overall thrust of the analysis was about the discursive representation and reconfiguration of disability rather than its lived experience. In recent months I’ve also become increasingly interested in the relationship between the mind and the body in colonial thought. The book largely focuses on physical disability and learning difficulties, but now I’m starting to think about the fluid ground between bodily impairment and mental distress.  So it is here I’m starting to think about what to do next!

*My work on Colonising Disability was supported by an AHRC grant [AH/P003621/1] of the same name, and early thinking was supported by a British Academy Small Grant on Transnational constructions of deafness [SG132127]. The Department of History at the University of Sheffield was supportive throughout. And my thanks go to my colleagues as well as to the funding organizations. 


Baynton, Douglas C., Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996). 

 Cleall, Esme, Colonsing Disability: impairment and otherness across Britain and its empire, c.1800-1914 (Cambridge: CUP, 2022). 

Goodley, Dan, Dis/ability Studies An Interdisciplinary Introduction (Sage Publications Limited, 2014)