Why Disability Studies for Archives?

By Gracen Brilmyer

This question is one that I think about often—what are all the ways in which disability studies can influence conceptions of archives as well as archival processes and practices? Archival studies, a subset of the field of information studies, is a discipline dedicated to critically understanding how archives operate, preserve perspectives, and influence cultural and individual memory. Archival studies considers not only the theoretical ways in which power operates in archives and records, but also the embodied ways in which theories are put into practice through archivists, archival processes, and policies. Similarly, feminist disability studies combines theory and practice, centering on the lived experiences of disabled people to conceptualize the interactions of ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism and also advocate for political change.

As part of a longer article titled “Archival assemblages: applying disability studies’ political/relational model to archival description,”  that was recently published in the journal Archival Science, I think through the multiple facets of feminist disability studies and specifically consider how the history of how knowledge organization in archives has significantly impacted the ways in which difference is understood (Brilmyer 2018):

Over the past fifteen years, a shift has occurred within archival studies; archivists, traditionally depicted as neutral custodians of records, are now acknowledged as active participants in archival records who shape and are shaped by history (Cook and Schwartz 2002; Punzalan and Caswell 2015) . . . Disability studies, interinformed with other critical theory, conceptualizes the ways in which disability is irreducible to bodily and mental difference. The field explores how disability is produced, understood in society, and responded to in cultural, environmental and material ways…

Not only do different marginalized groups share parallel histories of oppression such as eugenics, genocide, hate crimes, and domestic abuse; but ableism, racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia are also inter-informed. Disability Justice activist Patty Berne notes, “[w]e cannot comprehend ableism without grasping its interrelations with heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism, each system co-creating an ideal bodymind built upon the exclusion and elimination of a subjugated ‘other’ from whom profits and status are extracted” (Berne 2015). Such identities have been criminalized and contained through legislation, institutionalization, and sterilization (Schweik 2010), all of which, I argue, are intertwined with the power embedded in archives and processes of recording. Michelle Jarman, by integrating both race and disability critiques, traces the “long history of those benefiting by a power structure based upon white privilege using medical and psychiatric diagnoses to manufacture ‘truths’ of racial inferiorities” (Jarman 2012, p. 19). Archives, although not explicitly named, serve as the material embodiment of psychiatric (Aubrecht 2014; Geraci 2016) and racial injustice in many of these examples, as they exhibit power and control over marginalized lives through documenting and categorizing stigmatized people that are subsequently reinforced through archives.

Sara White, who began the conversation on how disability studies can influence archival theory, gestures at the power of archives and the history of oppression within different marginalized identities (White 2012). White’s work incorporates disability studies’ concept of embodiment and illustrates that how we understand disability heavily influences how we appraise, arrange, and describe fonds and collections (White 2012). Although focused around a method of “account[ing] for all disability experiences,” she highlights the conflation of medicine and nationalism, citing the categorization of Black slaves, immigrants, and poor whites as “defective” and how archives served public anxieties around contagion (White 2012). Race and nationality, as well as sexuality, gender, and class have shared histories, both separate and interwoven, with disability.

A feminist disability studies framework is particularly valuable for archival studies because it provides a nuanced approach to marginality and intersectionality, interrogating how identities can be sites of privilege or oppression, and can function differently in different spaces (Crenshaw 1991), including within archival spaces. Caswell cautions that archival pluralism should “avoid the pitfalls of claims of universality, inattention to power, silencing dissent, and collapsing of difference” that happens in religious pluralism (Caswell 2013, p. 288). To claim disability, Kafer confers, is “to recognize the ethical, epistemic, and political responsibilities” of such a claim (Kafer 2013, p. 13) and to draw more attention to difference, not less. An intersectional approach is crucial for understanding archival power as it highlights the differences in understandings of marginality as well as how, even if not recognized, disability has already been evident in critical approaches.

Most importantly, disability studies recognizes that many of the people affected by ableism and cultural oppression of bodies and minds may not identify as disabled. We can interrogate how people are affected by ableist ideals and cultural anxieties, and how those anxieties might intersect with other ways in which we conceive of ideal bodies and minds. “Anxiety about aging, for example, can be seen as a symptom of compulsory able-bodiedness/able-mindedness, as can attempts to ‘treat’ children who are slightly shorter than average with growth hormones; in neither case are the people involved necessarily disabled, but they are certainly affected by cultural ideals of normalcy and ideal form and function” (Kafer 2013, p. 8). Although archival holdings may not contain records specifically on disabled subjects… records still can rely on descriptive practices of materiality that assume self-evident properties and thus risk universalizing experience.

Although the article as a whole focuses on descriptive practices in archives in tandem with the politics of language around disability, centering the specific ways disability studies might coalesce with archival studies is integral in interrogating power structures embedded in archives. I argue that crossinforming archival studies and feminist disability studies illuminates the long history that records creation and description processes have in documenting, surveilling, and controlling disabled and other non-normative bodies and minds. Furthermore, utilizing the political/relational model of disability developed by Alison Kafer makes possible the illumination of archival assemblages: the multiple perspectives, power structures, and cultural influences—all of which are temporally, spatially, and materially contingent—that inform the creation and archival handling of records. By embracing the contestation of disability, and therefore the corresponding ways in which it is represented in archives, archivists and archives users are able to perceive and challenge the ways in which norms and deviance are understood, perpetuated, and constructed in public narratives via archives. As Kafer highlights, “rethinking our cultural assumptions about disability, imagining our disability futures differently, will benefit us all, regardless of our identities” (Kafer 2013, p. 8).

Gracen Brilmyer is a PhD student in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, and they are also pursuing a certificate in Gender Studies. They received a Travel Grant from CSW in Fall, 2017. Their research lies at the intersection of disability studies, archival studies, and the history of science, specifically focusing on the histories of natural history museums, colonialism and toxicity. Their work on archives has been published Archival Science and The Library Quarterly, and their research on entomological collections and digital archives has been published in the book The Discipline of Organizing and various journals. More can be found at: gracenbrilmyer.com


Works Cited

Aubrecht, Katie. “Disability Studies and the Language of Mental Illness.” Review of Disability Studies: An International Journal 8, no. 2 (October 15, 2014): 34–49.

Berne, Patty. “Disability Justice – a Working Draft by Patty Berne | Sins Invalid,” June 10, 2015. http://sinsinvalid.org/blog/disability-justice-a-working-draft-by-patty-berne, http://sinsinvalid.org/blog/disability-justice-a-working-draft-by-patty-berne.

Brilmyer, Gracen. “Archival Assemblages: Applying Disability Studies’ Political/Relational Model to Archival Description.” Archival Science 18, no. 2 (June 1, 2018): 95–118. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-018-9287-6.

Caswell, Michelle. “On Archival Pluralism: What Religious Pluralism (and Its Critics) Can Teach Us about Archives.” Archival Science 13, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 273–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-012-9197-y.

Cook, Terry, and Joan M. Schwartz. “Archives, Records, and Power: From (Postmodern) Theory to (Archival) Performance.” Archival Science 2, no. 3–4 (2002): 171–85. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02435620.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1241–99. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039.

Geraci, Noah. “Patient Experiences of Access to Mental Health Records.” University of California Los Angeles, 2016. eScholarship University of California. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/79x9w05q.

Gilliland, Anne. “Neutrality, Social Justice and the Obligations of Archival Education and Educators in the Twenty-First Century.” Archival Science 11, no. 3–4 (November 1, 2011): 193–209. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-011-9147-0.

Harris, Verne. “Postmodernism and Archival Appraisal: Seven Theses.” S. A. Archives Journal 40 (June 1998): 48.

Jarman, Michelle. “Coming Up from Underground: Uneasy Dialogues at the. Intersections of Race, Mental Illness, and Disability Studies.” In Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions, edited by Christopher M. Bell, 9–29. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2012.

Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. 1 edition. Bloomington Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Nesmith, Tom. “Seeing Archives: Postmodernism and the Changing Intellectual Place of Archives.” The American Archivist 65, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 24–41. https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.65.1.rr48450509r0712u.

Punzalan, Ricardo L., and Michelle Caswell. “Critical Directions for Archival Approaches to Social Justice.” The Library Quarterly 86, no. 1 (December 21, 2015): 25–42. https://doi.org/10.1086/684145.

Schweik, Susan M. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

White, Sara. “Crippling the Archives: Negotiating Notions of Disability in Appraisal and Arrangement and Description.” The American Archivist 75, no. 1 (April 1, 2012): 109–24. https://doi.org/10.17723/aarc.75.1.c53h4712017n4728.

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