Whose Tragedy? Cultural Representations of Disability

Events, Podcastson December 13th, 2012No Comments

 The podcast of this event can be found HERE.


Whose Tragedy? Cultural Representations of Disability 

A ‘Trauma History Fiction’ Workshop

Royal Holloway, University of London

March 21st 2013, 11am-6pm


Organised by Dr Hannah Thompson, RHUL

Received wisdom tells us that disability is a wholly negative occurrence to be avoided or cured wherever possible, a disaster which blights an individual’s life and causes terrible suffering and hardship. This way of thinking about disability, which has been defined as the ‘personal tragedy model’, is so pervasive as to have become the standard framework for defining and discussing disability. 

But recent work in Disability Studies offers an alternative way of conceiving disability.This new model, the ‘personal non-tragedy’ approach, works to challenge the meanings of notions such as ‘normality’, ‘cure’ and ‘beauty’ which underpin the negative way in which disability is traditionally conceived. In so doing, ‘personal non-tragedy’ seeks to valorise disability as a positive – even desirable – facet of individual and collective experience. 

This one-day workshop will explore ways in which representations of disability and the disabled in literature, film and the visual arts conform to or undermine the ‘personal tragedy’ model and how such representations might contribute to, or hinder, the development of the ‘personal non-tragedy’ model. ‘Disability’ will be understood in the widest possible way, encompassing, for example, physical and mental impairment, sensory deprivation, and conditions which are either permanent or temporary.

Questions discussed during the workshop might include: 

  • What are the ethical implications at stake in the representation of disability?
  • How is the reader or viewer implicated in such representations?
  • Who can speak about disability? Does speaking about disability mean different things across the disabled/non-disabled divide?
  • Are the two models exhaustive / mutually-exclusive / co-dependant? Are there other ways of thinking about disability?
  • What is the role of the metaphorical or the symbolic in representations of disability? What are the implications of metaphorical readings?
  • What is at stake in the experience of the reader/viewer/writer when discussing or responding to disability?
  • Is ‘disability’ a useful term of reference? Is it possible to generalise disability to this extent? Would more specific terms be more or less helpful?

 This workshop will take place as part of Royal Holloway’s ‘Trauma Fiction History’ series (http://traumafictionhistory.org/) at c4cc, 16 Acton Road, London (http://www.creativecollaboration.org.uk/index.php). It is the result of thinking which began with the ‘Nineteenth-Century Monsters’ seminar in March 2010. (http://traumafictionhistory.org/2010/03/nineteenth-century-monsters/)

As well as providing a forum in which to discuss Disability Studies’ relationship to cultural production through a predominantly (although not exclusively) French perspective, it is hoped that this workshop will be the first step in establishing a network of colleagues working on Disability Studies in Modern Languages with a view to an eventual AHRC Networks Grant.

About the Organiser:

Dr Hannah Thompson is a Senior Lecturer in French at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has published widely in nineteenth-century French literature, and her second book, Taboo: Corporeal Secrets of Nineteenth-Century France is forthcoming with Legenda. She is beginning a new project on blindness in French literature and culture and is particularly interested in Disability Studies’ relationship with French Studies. Her blog ‘Blind Spot’ (http://hannah-thompson.blogspot.co.uk/) uses elements of the ‘personal non-tragedy’ model to highlight the sighted world’s fraught relationship with the blind and partially blind.




Dr Jenny Chamarette, Queen Mary, University of London

Prof Charles Forsdick, University of Liverpool

Dr Sam Haigh, University of Warwick

Dr Nick Hammond, University of Cambridge

Prof Abigail Lee-Six, Royal Holloway, University of London

Dr Vivienne Orchard, University of Southampton

Prof Naomi Segal, Birkbeck, University of London

Dr Hannah Thompson (Organiser), Royal Holloway, University of London

Dr Kate Tunstall, Worcester College, Oxford

Dr Maria Vaccarella, King’s College London




11-11:15 Registration and Coffee 

11:15-1:15pm Session One 

Whose Disability? Challenging Stereotypical Representations of Epilepsy

Maria Vaccarella (Centre for the Humanities and Health and Comparative Literature Department, King’s College London)


Sur mes lèvres, Deafness, Embodiment: Towards a Film Phenomenology of a Differently Ordered Sensorium

Jenny Chamarette (Queen Mary, University of London)


Beyond the ‘Narrative of Overcoming’: Representations of Disability in Contemporary French Culture.

Sam Haigh (University of Warwick) 


1:15-2pm: Lunch

2-3:30:  Session Two 

Ana García-Siñeriz, Esas mujeres rubias (2010): disability, gender, and the medical establishment

Abigail Lee Six (Royal Holloway, University of London)


The pain of itching

Naomi Segal (Birkbeck College, London)


‘Raw data’: autistic aloneness and the category of insight in Elle s’appelle Sabine

Vivienne Orchard (University of Southampton) 


3:30-4: Tea 

4-5:30 Session Three 

Telling, not seeing: blindness and travel writing

Charles Forsdick (University of Liverpool)


On not being deaf to the blind

Kate Tunstall (Worcester College, Oxford)


Disability and Sexuality: the poetry of Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin (1595-1670)

Nick Hammond (University of Cambridge)


5:30 Closing Remarks and Plans for Next Stages


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