This Cambridge Life

The graduate student rewriting Deaf histories and disability histories

Kirstie Stage in the gardens at Christ's College

Kirstie Stage in the gardens at Christ's College

Kirstie Stage in the gardens at Christ's College

When Kirstie Stage was diagnosed with hearing loss, she realised that the experiences of Deaf and disabled people were missing from the history books. Kirstie is determined to bring these narratives to the fore.

I’m a history PhD student at Christ’s College and the British Library. History is like piecing together clues to solve a mystery. In the process you can find yourself going down all sorts of rabbit holes. It also gives me a chance to find answers to some of my own questions.

My mum has always been my main role model. She taught me a lot about what it meant to be feisty, to speak out for injustices and to advocate for others. She’s been an amazing support through periods of ill health and impairment troubles.

I didn’t know many disabled people growing up. So when I was diagnosed with hearing loss, I experienced lots of weird emotions and felt very different from everyone else.

As a university student, I began to notice the absence of Deaf and disabled people in historical accounts. Disability history has been emerging since the 1990s as an academic field. It is still largely under researched and in general, perspectives from disabled people are missing. Seeing this change is something I’m passionate about.

Kirstie Stage sitting on a wall in the gardens at Christ's College

During my master’s degree, I cofounded the UK Disability History and Heritage Hub. It’s a space for everyone to talk about Deaf, disabled and neurodivergent histories. I’ve learnt so much about myself and have been able to draw parallels between my own research and what was happening thousands of years ago.

In my doctoral research, I am focusing on disabled people and work between 1970 and 2010. I’ll be looking at how workplaces have changed, as well as investigating how laws have influenced disabled peoples’ experiences of, and conditions at, work.

Understanding the past can help to give context to some of the challenges disabled people may face today. Critical to my research is the social model of disability which essentially states that it is society that poses barriers to disabled people rather than their impairment/s or difference.

Lived experience lies at the centre of my project. I’d like to detail the views of people who are disabled, for example people who are non-speaking or non-verbal. It’s important to think about the method used to record narratives, for example if sign languages are being used, are they being interpreted accurately?

Kirstie Stage, with Christ's College in the background

I want to share disabled histories with community groups, especially with people who may not have previously been recognised in mainstream historical accounts. I believe that capturing memories and sharing knowledge is both empowering and important for community building.

On a recent trip to the archives of Gallaudet University, USA, which teaches in both American Sign Language and written English, I found examples of work by deaf scholar Pierre Gorman. It’s claimed that Pierre was the first deaf person to receive a doctorate from Cambridge in 1960. In his work, he discusses his experiences of education, segregation and integration.   

I hope we’ll see the community of Deaf and disabled students growing at Cambridge and other universities. I’d like to see more outreach from universities into special schools, SEN (Special Education Needs) departments, Deaf and Disabled people’s organisations (DDPOs) and Deaf clubs.

Universities also need to consider practical aspects of applications and interviews like whether rooms are accessible for wheelchair users or arranging different kinds of reasonable adjustments including sign language interpreters.

Kirstie Stage sitting on a bench

During my first year at Cambridge, Natasha Ghouri from Love Island, who is a cochlear implant user and a deaf activist, was speaking at the Cambridge Union. I was invited to meet her as I had just come back from New York as a United Nations Delegate for the Commission on the Status of Women, where I worked on the intersection between gender, disability and Deaf issues.

Behind us I spotted someone – my now friend Ria – wearing this brilliant ‘Deaf and proud’ badge. 'I also met another deaf friend, Ashna, through Ria. The three of us started chatting ­– it was one of the best opportunities I’ve found here in Cambridge to talk about our shared experiences.’

Recently I’ve joined the campaign advisory group for Sign Health. This is a Deaf-led organisation that thinks about the experiences of d/Deaf people. The deaf together campaign is a collaborative movement led by the Deaf community to end the inequalities that all deaf people face.

We absolutely have reason to be hopeful. My research has shown me that there is power when different groups of people come together and learn more about their histories. Everyone experiences the world differently and it is important for history to be reflective of this.

Published 5 January 2024
With thanks to:

Kirstie Stage

Charis Goodyear

Lloyd Mann

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License