Topics in Disability

Disability: Topics of Interest


Martineau began suffering from hearing loss at a young age, a loss which followed her throughout her life. As Mary Jo Deegan notes in her essay “Making Lemonade: Harriet Martineau on Being Deaf”, Martineau’s deafness “profoundly shaped all her experiences, ideas and methods” (42), leading to much contemplation and self-reflection coalescing in the form of essays and articles. In “Letter to the Deaf”, Martineau writes in detail her struggle to cope with her deafness after already becoming accustomed to socialization among the hearing. (174-179) Already “a young girl flooded with feelings of shame and guilt resulting in extreme shyness and conscientiousness” (Deegan 42), deafness the consequential social disconnection only made such pains worse and facilitated further withdrawal from society. It was only after “several years of denial, shame and floundering” (44) that Martineau began to accept who she was, deafness and all, and build her life anew as that very person. Believing Martineau’s process of acceptance and subsequent construction of her life to be more than one of simple adaptation, Deegan prefers the phrase “making lemonade” (41) to better reflect the idiom that encourages making the best of a bad situation. To Deegan, Martineau did not just simply adapt to her situation: more significantly, she made a choice to take control of her life for herself.

Sociology and Observation

Martineau’s interest in sociology developed and was nourished in part as a natural extension of her deafness (Deegan 47), a disability which, in removing the ease of discourse in social settings, forced her to instead position herself as the observer (48). As Deborah May Fratz asserts in her essay “Disabled Subjects: Disability, Gender and Ethical Agency in Victorian Realism”, Martineau’s “cultivation of an ethically appropriate detachment [vis observational study] is inflected by gender and disability […] [and her] reflections on her social experience as a deaf woman and sometimes invalid seem almost inseparable from her articulation of a sociological project of observation (104). Life in the Sick Room, for example, “begins as a discussion about illness and becomes a narrative about observation” (105), reinforcing the connection between the two in the mind of both writer and reader. To Fratz, elements of sociology and disability inform each other and “[accepting] limitations and focusing on opportunities empowers the disabled, just as it authorizes the acute social observer” (107). As well as being credited with being among the first female sociologists — if not the first — Martineau was also “one of the earliest sociologists to study disability” (Deegan 43).

Works Cited

  1. Deegan, Mary Jo. “Making Lemonade: Harriet Martineau on Being Deaf.” Harriet Martineau: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives. Eds. Hill, Michael R and Hoecker-Drysdale, Susan. Routledge: Psychology Press, 2002: 41-58. Print.
  2. Fratz, Deborah Mae. “Post of Observation: Harriet Martineau’s Disabled Subject as Sociological Observer.” Disabled Subjects: Disability, Gender and Ethical Agency in Victorian Realism. Ann Arbor, 2008. ProQuest. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.
  3. Martineau, Harriet. “Letter to the Deaf.” William Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine. Edinburgh: William Tait, 1834. Google Books. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

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