Disability Pride Month occurs in July “to listen to what the voices of disabled people have to say about their rights and what they need“.
The month was chosen to recognise that, the then President of the United States, George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law on July 26, 1990. (Wiki)
As this month is Disability Pride Month, I thought I’d write a short piece about my “disabled” character, Joe Tanner. I put the disabled in “ ” because Joe wouldn’t have seen himself as disabled. He’s deaf and has been since birth, and yes, that’s a disability, but all the same, he wouldn’t (or doesn’t) consider himself disabled.
These days, it’s difficult to write about how Joe was treated because the language of that time is now considered offensive, but we shouldn’t take offence at history, because there’s nothing we can do to change it; it is how it was. Being deaf in the late 19th century wasn’t easy, and although there had been schools for the deaf since the 18th century, they were small, private and expensive. Also, sign language was outlawed in 1880 and was discouraged as taught communication for 100 years. When Joe Tanner was born in 1871, his parents didn’t know what to make of him. Although his father was a vicar, he had a very short fuse, and Joe’s early life wasn’t pleasant. Frustrated that their son couldn’t communicate, Joe’s parents left him at the Hackney Workhouse and buggered off to America. Joe was about seven at this time, and was immediately put on the ‘idiots ward.’
This is where you mustn’t take offence to the language.
According to the glossary on Peter Higginbotham’s marvellous site www.workhouses.org:
Idiots and Imbeciles were two commonly used categories of mental subnormality.
Definitions varied over the years, but in broad terms:
Idiots, the most deficient, were unable to protect themselves against basic physical dangers.
Imbeciles, a less severely deficient group, were unable to protect themselves against moral and mental dangers.
It’s also likely that many deaf people entering a workhouse would have ended up in the hospital wards or sent to an asylum. In Joe’s case, he should have been sent to a school, which probably would have done him no good anyway, but he was lucky. Not only did he have an understanding workhouse matron, but he also met Dalston Blaze.
Here are some extracts from the chapter in ‘Guardians of the Poor’ where Dalston meets Joe for the first time. Joe was seven, Dalston six, and Mrs Lee was the workhouse matron.
The matron demanded to know what was happening, and a grubber said the boy had refused to stay on the idiots’ ward, and they were trying to get him back there. Dalston knew of the idiots’ ward, and of the one on the floor above, which was for the imbeciles, but he wasn’t allowed up there. Even if he was, he wouldn’t have gone, the noises and screaming were too frightening.
As the matron tore the grubbers down a peg, Dalston crept closer and stood facing the boy. Without knowing why, he knew that what was happening was wrong. If a boy misbehaved, he missed a meal, everyone knew that, and perhaps, he thought, this lad has been naughty. It wasn’t uncommon for the schoolteacher to whack a boy’s arse for misbehaving, but if this lad had just suffered that, he wouldn’t have been able to sit.
Mrs Lee tried to talk to him, but he balled himself tighter, and in the end, she told the grubbers to go about their business, and leave the lad alone.
Dalston, intrigued by the boy, stays with him when the staff give up, and the two start to communicate. Their language begins with drawings and moves on to finger and hand signs. In the story, Dalston (who is hearing) and Joe do what many deaf people did; they invented their own language. Although British Sign Language (BSL), as we now call it, was abandoned in schools in 1880, many deaf people continued to use it in their own groups, homes and meeting places. That’s why there are now so many regional variations in BSL.
Dalston and Joe go on to appear in all of the Larkspur Mysteries either as main characters or supporting cast, so I have been able to explore Joe’s character more as the series goes on. I thought it was important that Joe didn’t end up as a ‘feel sorry for’ character; I didn’t want him to be the one being looked after or treated in any way differently to the other characters. He’s a gay, young man in Victorian times like all the others around him, except he can’t hear. He can communicate, but not everyone can return the communication, not with sign language at any rate. However, other characters are learning some of it, they can always write things down, and none of them treats Joe as inferior. He is, after all, an excellent and natural horseman, he drives the carriages, and he studies archaeology while solving old murder cases.
With Joe, I wanted to show a disabled character in the same way as I show my others. Therefore, he’s not always fun and happiness, he has flaws, he gets frustrated, and he has a temper. He and Dalston’s first year together out of the workhouse (aged 19 and 18 by then) was not always an easy one, and like any young couple, they had relationship problems – none of which were due to Joe’s deafness. Joe’s also got a naughty sense of humour, and uses his sign language to his advantage, talking about people without them knowing what he is saying.
Book five of the Larkspur series, ‘Speaking in Silence’ also concerns a young man with a disability, though it’s not a physical one. Because of something that happened in his past, Edward Hyde has chosen not to speak more than one or two words to anyone (apart from his one friend). It’s his way of withdrawing from the world because of an incident that left him contemplating suicide. So, his disability is, you might say, an emotional one, but it is one he can be ‘cured’ of. That’s what the book is about, getting Edward’s voice back – although emotional recovery from his trauma will continue long after the story has finished.
For both these characters, Joe Tanner and Edward Hyde, I wanted to present my differently-abled characters as positive, non-victims (although Edward was) and to make them as good/bad, nice/nasty, grateful/churlish as all the others. Hopefully, they both present positive images of deaf or emotionally scarred people, and we see them do heroic things that we all wish we had the courage to do.
However readers take them, what they do in the books makes me proud, and that’s my way of wrapping up this post about my ‘disabled’ characters for Disability Pride Month.
Speaking in Silence is due out at the beginning of August
The Larkspur Series begins with ‘Guardians of the Poor’ and it’s Joe you see on the cover signing the word ‘deaf.’