Writing about People with Disabilities: Teaching or Displaying?

By Sarah Keck

In freak shows, people with physical differences–such as conjoined twins, those with fewer limbs than the norm, and those who can perform unusual actions–are displayed for the public to gawk and stare at. Because their differences from the “normal” concept of the human are emphasized, they are made to seem inhuman to spectators. Displaying human difference in this way is clearly a problem. However, can this sort of dehumanizing display be done in writing, even though the only things writing presents to be stared at are literally written words on a piece of paper? Sure. Here’s why:

A few definitions of the verb “display,” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, are “to put or spread before the view,” “to make evident,” and “to exhibit ostentatiously.” When writing about people with disabilities, writers are not literally displaying them for people to view (although people are capable of envisioning what’s written down in detail), but it is still a form of exhibit. Julia Twigg describes this in her article “Social Policy and the Body” in the book Rethinking Social Policy: “An emphasis on the bodily potentially demeans disabled people, presenting them as the rejected ‘other’ of the freak show, subject to…pitying gaze of the dominant society” (135). This emphasis on a person’s bodily “abnormality” can occur physically or in writing.

Twigg presents an example from her own research, in which she decided that a description would amount to a demeaning display. She was writing about a disabled woman whose caretakers did not arrive at her house at the right time. In the midst of writing that the woman wouldn’t just “eat, sleep and live but also excrete in the bed,” she stopped herself because that last detail would “expose and lessen” that woman (135). Readers should learn about disabilities, but their focus shouldn’t be solely on the disabled body to the point that they forget the disabled person’s humanity. Focusing on the woman’s body, in this case, could present her as animalistic because hygiene practices are one of things that we see as separating humans from animals, and, without a caretaker, this woman was denied access to these practices. Also, although excretion is normal and natural, it is considered private, and this privacy is central to human dignity.

In the play The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance challenges the dehumanization of disabled people in writing. Although the play is meant to be performed, the challenge comes through to a reader as well. In Scene 3, the main character, John Merrick, is put on display due to his body being disabled. Dr. Frederick Treves, the surgeon who takes in Merrick, describes Merrick’s body in his medical display:

…From the upper jaw there projected another mass of bone. It protruded from the mouth like a pink stump, turning the upper lip inside out, and making the mouth a wide, slobbering aperture…The deformities rendered the face utterly incapable of the expression of any emotion whatsoever…developed hip disease which left him permanently lame, so that he could only walk with a stick. (Pomerance 5-6)

Though this written display of Merrick focuses dominantly on his body, dehumanizing him, it is only a brief scene, and it is later criticized within the play. The majority of the play doesn’t center only on Merrick’s body. There are many scenes in which Merrick’s personhood is noted so that his body is not the focal point. A few examples would be when he cried at how Madge Kendal, a visitor, was the first woman to shake his hand (35), when he explained his purpose in building a model of St. Phillip’s church (38), and when he questions the standards Treves has regarding the display of women’s bodies in Scene 16 (55-58). Readers can learn in The Elephant Man that Merrick is more than his stage name. From being in a freak show to living in Treves’ care, Merrick goes from “freak” to “normal” in the reader’s mind. He is presented in writing as a human being, displaying qualities and actions of any human, as every person with a disability does.

In performance, the play takes this focus on his humanity further. Pomerance made it clear to focus on Merrick as a person in the play’s introduction: “Any attempt to reproduce his [Merrick’s] appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play” (V-VI). If an actor took the appearance of Merrick, the audience would only be drawn to the character’s abnormality, not to the humanity. Thus, it wouldn’t be different from a live freak show with Merrick on display. Pomerance doesn’t focus only on Merrick’s body in the script, so he doesn’t advise actors to take on the role literally in the production. But he does not ignore Merrick’s body either. He suggested using “projected slides” (VI) to give people an understanding of how Merrick appeared. Thus, once they’d gotten past their initial prejudices, the reader and viewer can come to an understanding of Merrick as a person with a disability, rather than a person in spite of his disability.

It’s not entirely possible to write about people without indirectly displaying them. The thing is, if what’s written about disabled people is meant to teach people about the feelings and experiences of those put up on display, then it’s not meant to be negative. They can be displayed in writing in ways that do not other them but instead educate readers.


Works Cited

“Display.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2015. Web.

Pomerance, Bernard. The Elephant Man. New York: Grove, 1979. V-VI, 5-6, 35, 38, 55-58. Print.

Twigg, Julia. “Social Policy and the Body.” Rethinking Social Policy. Ed. Gail Lewis, Sharon Gewirtz, and John Clarke. London: Open U in Association with SAGE Publications, 2000. 135. Print.

Ota Benga: What has Changed After a Century?

By: Lauren Seitz

In 1906, Ota Benga, a four-foot-eleven-inch “African pygmy,” began his nearly three-week long exhibition at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The exhibit, which was viewed by thousands of people per day, encouraged viewers to see Benga in primitive and animalistic terms;  zoo officials clothed him in animal skins and kept him in a cage. They even introduced chimpanzees into the cage with him, leading spectators to create a connection between the chimps and the “pygmy,” a term which was formerly used to refer to monkeys (Newkirk, “When the Bronx Zoo Exhibited a Man in an Iron Cage”).

This wasn’t the first time that Benga had been exhibited in the United States. Two years earlier, an American named S.P. Verner had bought Benga’s freedom in an African slave market and convinced him and eight other pygmies to exhibit themselves at the St. Louis World’s Fair because they were believed to be “the lowest rung on the evolutionary scale” (Newkirk, “The Man Who was Caged in a Zoo”). Benga and his fellow pygmies were taken to the Fair’s anthropology exhibit and were housed next to a group of Native Americans. After his time at the fair was over, Benga was released to go back home to Africa, and, two years later, after finding life there unsatisfactory, he returned to the United States with Verner (Zielinski).

It was Verner who arranged for Benga to be exhibited, first at the American Museum of Natural History and, later, deciding it was too barbaric for a man to live in a museum, at the Bronx Zoo (Zielinski). Unlike many of the human exhibits at the time, Benga simply sat solemnly in his cage on a stool, glaring at the crowds—an estimated 40,000 people per day—that gawked at him. Even with no performative aspect to his exhibit, zoo-goers were fascinated by what they considered to be a different, and presumably “inferior,” race of beings, and scientists used Benga to trumpet the triumphs of Western colonization: “Benga’s exhibition on the hallowed grounds of the New York Zoological Gardens [Bronx Zoo] was not mere entertainment – it was educational. They [scientists] believed Benga belonged to an inferior species; putting him on display in the zoo promoted the highest ideals of modern civilization” (Newkirk, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”).

African-American ministers, along with a minority of white elites, protested his treatment, and it was these protests that eventually got him released after twenty days in the zoo—but this didn’t occur without a fight. The protesters hit “a wall of white indifference, as New York’s newspapers, scientists, public officials, and ordinary citizens reveled in the spectacle” (Newkirk, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”). Newspaper headlines, such as one from the New York Times on September 9, 1906, exclaimed: “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes,” and the article noted “It is a probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply. If he did it isn’t likely that he would be produ [sic] of himself…” (“Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes”).

At the beginning of Benga’s captivity and display, there was a sense of public indifference to the inhumanity of the exhibit; quickly, however, spectators became more outspoken, as protests from the black community, as well as white southerners who believed that Benga’s treatment was inhumane, became larger and more publicized. Newspapers from all over the country picked up the story–some in favor of Benga’s exhibit and some opposed–but the opposition began to win out. Rage was ignited in African-American communities across the country, with Reverend Matthew Gilbert writing in the New York Times: ‘“Only prejudice against the negro race made such a thing possible in this country”’ (Newkirk, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”). Benga also began to fight back more often and more aggressively against his captors, leading him to become a liability, both physically and publicity-wise, for the zoo. Bowing to intense public pressure and even the threat of a lawsuit, Benga was finally released, twenty days after he was first put on display (Newkirk, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”). Crowds around the country cheered.

We would like to think that we’ve learned lessons, both cultural and social, from Benga’s exhibition, but Stassa Edwards explains that this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, she argues, “history has effectively silenced” Benga’s story. Edwards asserts that it’s not necessarily the story of Benga that is forgotten but the reasons it happened in the first place. When people hear Benga’s story, it elicits a response that is something along the lines of “Oh, that poor man!” We need not to pity Benga, but we should  learn from his story–lessons that have gone largely unlearned over the past century. Pamela Newkirk, who has just published a book about the trials of Ota Benga, explains, in an interview with Edwards that “[t]he racial ideology that resulted in Benga’s capture and captivity in the zoo was deeply embedded in science, in politics, media, and in American popular culture.” Racial issues such as these continue to pervade our society, as racial discrimination remains a pillar of systematic injustice.

In fact, Newkirk argues, the Black Lives Matter movement has merely taken the place of Benga as the spectacle of African American suffering in America. She states that the movement has become “the prism through which white America observes the novelty of caged black life” (Newkirk, “The Numbing Spectacle of Racism”). The movement is largely driven by the African- American community and aims to point out the violence suffered by black men and women at the hands of police officers; the larger conversation surrounding the hashtag has branched out to address the pervasiveness of racism that is embedded in our society today, from education and poverty issues to mass incarceration—a topic which bears the most resemblance to Benga’s case, as, according to the NAACP, “African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses…[and] serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months)”.

A large majority of white Americans, though aware of implications of this systematic racism, don’t do anything about it. Newkirk points out that “Over breakfast cereal we now watch the televised spectacle of unarmed black males in custody…. When faced with the most glaring evidence of malice, most good people concur that black lives matter—before switching the station and going on with their day” (“The Numbing Spectacle of Racism”). That a large part of the white majority continues to overlook what’s happening today just solidifies the fact that we have not learned much from the oppressive social climate during Benga’s captivity and the stigma against African Americans that allowed him to be put there in 1906.

Though, today, most would never openly exhibit humans, the racism that caused Benga to become a human exhibit in the first place nevertheless continues. Over a century has passed since Ota Benga was treated as an animal at the Bronx Zoo. If we continue to ignore the reasons behind human exhibits such as Benga’s, we cannot learn to overcome them. Are the attitudes that originated from human exhibits still present today? Yes. Do we still have a lot to learn from our shameful history of these exhibits? Yes. Should we continue to believe that society no longer operates with these motivations?  Absolutely not.


For more information on African American incarceration rates, click here.


For a New York Times book review of Pamela Newkirk’s new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, click here.



Works Cited:


“Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes.” New York Times. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. 09 Sept. 1906. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.


“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.


Edwards, Stassa. “Talking to Pamela Newkirk About Ota Benga, the Man Kept in the Bronx Zoo.” Pictoral. Jezebel.com, 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015


Newkirk, Pamela. “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 3 June. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.


Newkirk, Pamela. “The Numbing Spectacle of Racism.” The Nation. The Nation. 01 June 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.


Newkirk, Pamela. “When the Bronx Zoo exhibited a Man in an Iron Cage.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 3 June 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.


Richman, Joe. “From the Belgian Congo to the Bronx Zoo.” National Public Radio. NPR. 08 Sept. 2006. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.


Zielinksi, Sarah. “The Tragic Tale of the Pygmy in the Zoo.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. 02 Dec. 2008. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.