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In Session: Constructing Blindness: Moral, Medical, & Media Frameworks of Disability from East Asia
3: Representations of Disease: Blindness in Medical Texts in Tokugawa Japan
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Wei Yu Wayne Tan
Hope College, United States
In disability studies, the debate between medical classifications (the medical model) of disability and social constructions (the social model) of disability continues to animate discussions of how disability is constructed in society. Blindness, a form of visual impairment, can be interpreted through either model. The medical model emphasizes the diseases that cause blindness, but the social model emphasizes the social conditions that make blindness a disability. Though the two models appear to be opposed to each other as current scholarship suggests, they do not have to be mutually exclusive.
In this paper, I survey medical texts in Tokugawa Japan to examine blindness through the medical model. I argue that the medical approach to blindness yields important insights into the intellectual frameworks for understanding blindness—and, at the same time, these insights enhance the way we think about the social model of disability. Blindness is a range of conditions represented in the discourses of traditional Sino-Japanese medicine. The language about blindness in medical texts suggests that the analysis was grounded in historical categories of diseases and linguistic choices that gave blindness a basis of interpretation. Though medical texts were not concerned with disability per se, they documented the impairing effects of blindness. What is important in the medical histories of blindness, as I show, is that medical knowledge was also socially constructed. The medical model, through its focus on diseases, highlights the historical nature of the human body that is missing in representations of disability in the social model.