Susan Burch is a professor of American studies and a former director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Middlebury College. Her research and teaching interests focus on deafness, disability, race, and gender and sexuality in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. history. She is the author of Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to 1942 (2002) and a coauthor, with Hannah Joyner, of Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson (2007). She has coedited anthologies including Women and Deafness: Double Visions (2006), Deaf and Disability Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (2010), and Disability Histories (2014). She also served as editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of American Disability History (2009). She has received an American Council of Learned Societies' Fellowship, a National Archives regional residency fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities and Mellon Foundation grants, and a Fulbright Scholars award. Her most recent work, Committed: Remembering Institutionalization and Native Kinship (2021) centers on peoples' experiences inside and outside the Canton Asylum, a federal psychiatric institution created specifically to detain American Indians.
Disability historians play a critical role in telling and retelling stories of the past. Centering on the lived experiences of disabled people in this presentation, Burch raises questions that reflect the complex, messy process of recalling the past and of repopulating it. Disability scholars must contend, for example, with the intimacy and vulnerability of forced commitments, sterilizations, and lobotomies—to name just a few medical interventions in global disability history. For many reasons, the stories told by superintendents and policymakers often shout louder than the versions disabled people might tell. This encourages many disability historians, then, to seek and tell disability histories even when the sources weigh heavily in the favor of other perspectives. The disability historian’s work in retrieving disability stories may stir questions of privacy and shame, but may also preserve the everyday acts of solidarity and creativity that continue to inform disability cultures. Our work ultimately may restructure knowledge itself, in form, content, and interpretation.