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Jaipreet Virdis office houses a collection of items
related to her research on the history of disability and medicine. Here,
shes holding a plastic Visible Woman model with removable body parts
and organs, a popular educational toy sold in the 1960s.
Virdi was living and teaching in Canada, where she had grown up and
earned her doctorate in the history of science, technology and medicine,
when she found out about a job opening on the faculty of the University
of Delawares Department of History.
I looked into it, and I learned about the Universitys Hagley Program
[in the History of Capitalism, Technology and Culture] and its strength
in the field of material culture studies, and I thought: This is the
job for me, Virdi said.
UD agreed, and Virdi joined the faculty as an assistant professor of
history in 2018. Since then, she has continued to teach, conduct
research, write, give public lectures around the country and work on
several other scholarly projects all related to her special interests
in how disability, and particularly the technology and medical
interventions associated with it, have been viewed throughout history.
This year will see the publication of two of her books. Virdi is a co-editor of Disability and the Victorians: Attitudes, Interventions, Legacies, published in April by Manchester University Press, and is the author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History, published in August by the University of Chicago Press.
Disability and the Victorians is a collection of essays that
discuss such topics as deafness, blindness, language delay and the
portrayal of characters with disabilities in popular fiction, all
focused on the Victorian Era. The writers also explore how attitudes
toward, and treatments of, disabilities at that time have affected
societys views even today.
In addition to editing the book, with co-editors Iain Hutchison and
Martin Atherton, Virdi wrote a chapter on how deafness was medicalized
in Victorian London, examining the Royal Ear Hospital from 1816-1916.
Hearing Happiness, originally scheduled for publication in May
but delayed a few months by the current pandemic, looks at deafness in
America from the 1860s to the present. Virdis research includes a
history of what the books publisher calls curious cures many of
them pseudo medicine or outright fakes for hearing loss, from
electrotherapy to skull hammering.
The book combines scholarly research with Virdis personal
recollections, after a bout of meningitis at age 4 left her almost
totally deaf. Her struggles to adapt to her condition and to the way she
was perceived by society helped fuel her personal and professional
interest in disability studies.
Its an academic book, but I guess because Im deaf myself, I wanted it to be readable, too, Virdi said of Hearing Happiness.
Scholars, writers and activists who reviewed the book have called it
a moving story [that] will resonate with any reader seeking to
understand what it truly is like to be deaf in the U.S. and a landmark
study in the history of technology.
Virdi also is continuing to contribute to a long-term project,
Objects of Disability, an online resource database of historical
artifacts used or made by Canadians with disabilities, and is at work on
another book. Her work has been recognized by the Forum for History of
Human Science, which presented her its 2019 Early Career Award.
She is the subject of the Office Hours
feature in a recent issue of the UD Magazine, where you can see some of
the many disability-related objects that fill her shelves, reflecting
her research and attracting visits from students and colleagues.
Article by Ann Manser; photo by Evan Krape
Published Sept. 11, 2020
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