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UD Prof. Jaipreet Virdi’s office houses a collection of items related to her research on the history of disability and medicine. Here, she’s holding a plastic Visible Woman model with removable body parts and organs, a popular educational toy sold in the 1960s.
UD Prof. Jaipreet Virdi’s office houses a collection of items related to her research on the history of disability and medicine. Here, she’s holding a plastic Visible Woman model with removable body parts and organs, a popular educational toy sold in the 1960s.

Views of disability, deafness

Photo by Evan Krape

New books examine history of attitudes, perceptions, interventions

Jaipreet 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 Delaware’s Department of History.

“I looked into it, and I learned about the University’s 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 society’s 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. Virdi’s research includes a history of what the book’s 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 Virdi’s 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.

“It’s an academic book, but I guess because I’m 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.

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