Henry Mayhew's Attitude To Disability

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The subject of ‘disability’ has always become an awkward and unsure one. The trouble, perhaps, is caused primarily by a sense of discomfort regarding the ‘proper’ emotional response towards the ‘disabled’ people. Generally, it is a confused feeling of compassion, anxiety, apprehension, pity, annoyance, detachment, self-complacency and even guilt. Moreover, the borderline between ‘ability’ and disability remains vulnerable and indefinite, as nobody can assure that the ‘able-bodied’ people will remain so till their death. It creates another uncomfortable realisation about the impermanence of body. In fact, the attitude to disability is a cultural construct. The emotional reaction to it is closely associated with the accepted standard of physical…show more content…
Excessive emotional reaction to ‘disabled’ ones often tended to become melodramatic. It was, in turn, subject to manipulations. This is reflected in Henry Mayhew’s encyclopaedic London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2). Andrew Halliday presents here a vivid picture of the numerous kinds of physical disability that could be found frequently on the streets of the city in the mid-nineteenth century. It reveals that many of them were imposters. A considerable number of ‘beggars’ “exhibited” their impaired bodies as their sources of income (431). Those who used their ‘disability’ and ‘deformity’ seemed to dwell on a different sphere of life and…show more content…
Referring to Catherine Peter’s biography of Wilkie Collins, Kate Flint suggests that Collins’s interest in “obstacles to full physical functioning”, may be seen partly as a result of his own eyesight-related problems (he suffered from chronic ‘eye gout’ and consulted the ophthalmic surgeon George Critchett about this) (Flint 153). Collins’s reliance on melodramatic tradition has also been suggested as a reason for his interest in physical disability. On the other hand, Flint refers to a broader nineteenth-century concern “with the operation of the senses” in this respect (Flint 154). In her observation, this concern was demonstrated in various fields such as literature and science of the period. The popular literary texts often showed a “theological bias”, suggesting that some spiritual consolation could follow physical deprivation. Contemporary scientific works that studied and made various developments in the fields of physiology and psychology paid attention to “variation and aberration within human perceptual systems”. There was an attempt to make generalisations about the ‘normal’ functioning of the senses (154). This attitude was duly mirrored in the representation of ‘disabled’ characters in the contemporary English novels. For example, we may mention the diminutive persons of The Marchioness in Dickens’s The Old

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