E – Concepts and digital tools, fields and disciplines in global history

Histories of disability in the Global South: A comparative perspective on a minority in the majority world

Event Details

  • Date

    Friday, 26 June - 9:00 – 11:00

    Friday, 26 June - 14:00 – 16:00

  • Venue
  • Theme
    E – Concepts and digital tools, fields and disciplines in global history
  • Sam De Schutter (Leiden University)
  • Monika Baar (Leiden University)
  • Magnus Mfoafo-M’Carthy (Wilfrid Laurier University)
  • Jeff D. Grischow (Wilfrid Laurier University)
  • Aparna Nair (University of Oklahoma-Norman)
  • Sam De Schutter (Leiden University)
  • Sara Scalenghe (Loyola University Maryland)


  • Magnus Mfoafo-M’Carthy
    Jeff D. Grischow
    From Colonial Paternalism to Grassroots Activism: A History of Disability Rights for Blind Ghanaians

    From Colonial Paternalism to Grassroots Activism: A History of Disability Rights for Blind Ghanaians

    Our paper will report the findings from an archival/oral history project on the history of blindness in Ghana, focusing on blindness and disability rights in the colonial and postcolonial periods. Blindness was one of the first disability issues taken up by the colonial government in Ghana (the Gold Coast) and the country has a long history of associations for blind Ghanaians. Yet no studies exist on the history of blindness in the country. To address this research gap, we researched archival sources and conducted interviews with past leaders of Ghana’s main associations for the blind. Our paper will present the results of this research, with a particular focus on several research questions: (1) What were the historical roots of colonial policies and associations for blind Ghanaians? (2) What forces drove the transition in the 1960s from top-down colonial associations to grassroots organizations controlled by blind Ghanaians? (3) What have been the major achievements of the Ghanaian-controlled organizations for the rights of blind Ghanaians since the 1960s?
  • Aparna Nair
    Disability Activism between the Colony and the Metropole

    Disability Activism between the Colony and the Metropole

    The histories of disability rights activism are often narrated as beginning in the 1960s with the Disability Rights Movements. This paper examines the ways in which activists and advocates for the disabled established and utilised transnational linkages to argue for the needs and rights of disabled Indian subjects, including deaf and blind communities as well as those with physical impairments like leprosy.
  • Sam De Schutter
    Disability Internationalism: Transnational Entanglements of Disability in Kenya, 1960s-1980s

    Disability Internationalism: Transnational Entanglements of Disability in Kenya, 1960s-1980s

    In this paper I aim to present a central aspect of my research on the history of disability in Kenya. I want to analyze the importance of international development interventions in shaping and influencing policies and practices related to disability on the ground in Kenya. In particular, I will focus on the contributions of one international organization, the International Labour Organization (ILO). Through technical assistance, the ILO has been involved in some of the major initiatives with regards to disability policies in Kenya since independence. In this paper, I aim to show how this ‘disability internationalism’ was not just about how policies and programs were designed by the ILO and then brought to Kenya by technical experts. Rather, policies and practices relating to disability were shaped on the ground, through the agency of different actors: not just ILO experts, but also disabled Kenyans, public servants, government officials, and voluntary agencies. This perspective allows us to write countries like Kenya into a more global history of disability, not just as a specific local case study, but as an integral part and actor of a more international history.
  • Sara Scalenghe
    Disability and Education in the Arab World: Historical Perspectives

    Disability and Education in the Arab World: Historical Perspectives

    Despite its obvious significance to the lives of millions of people, the history of disability in the modern Middle East and North Africa remains largely unwritten. This paper explores the history of education of people with sensory impairments in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It first provides a succinct overview of the educational opportunities afforded or denied to blind and to deaf individuals in the pre-modern Arab world. Through a close reading of archival documents and published and unpublished primary materials, it will then focus on the earliest known school for the blind in the nineteenth century: The School for the Blind in Beirut. It was established in 1868 by the British Syrian Mission (BSM), a woman-led, non-denominational Protestant missionary charity. This school was enormously influential in the region and was a major point of reference for later schools. Other early schools for the blind include those established by Muhammad Anas in Cairo (1870s), by Mary Jane Lovell in Jerusalem (1897), by Lady Meath in Alexandria (1900), by Mrs. Armitage in Cairo (1901). In addition, The Class for Deaf and Dumb Boys was opened by Abdullah Iddleby in Cairo in about 1904. Informed by Victorian notions of charity, the founders of these schools were driven both by a genuine desire to alleviate what they perceived as the wretched suffering of impaired Arabs by turning them into more productive citizens and, for some, by the hope that they would be easier to convert and would in turn proselytize. But, I hypothesize, a momentous if unintended consequence of the ways in which they framed discourses on impairments were a contributing factor to the construction of the new social category of “the disabled,” a category that was undoubtedly beneficial for some people with impairments, but that also led to increased stigmatization and marginalization of others.


While disability is the only minority that anyone can become part of at any given time, it still often only figures at the fringes of historiography. The body of research putting disability front and center in history might be growing, but this literature is still mostly focused on the Anglo-Saxon countries or, more broadly, on the global north. It has however often been noted that the majority of the ‘minority’ that disabled people represent lives and has lived in the global south. Histories of disability in the Majority World are nonetheless still rare, but a growing number of scholars are now picking up on the history of disability in Africa, South America and Asia. In this panel, we want to bring together some of these scholars to make a first attempt at a more comparative disability history from the global south in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We aim to link these histories together by uncovering some of the common threads that have defined disability experiences in the Majority World, such as labor, medicine, education, activism and/or religion. We also attempt to explicitly explore the intersections with different forms of oppression and exclusion, specifically the experience of colonialism and imperialism with their accompanying expressions of racism. The ultimate goal of this panel is to get a first comparative perspective on the similarities and divergences of historical experiences of disability in the global south, in an attempt to include these histories in a more global history of disability.