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‘Living with Difference’: Disability and Oral History

Traditional historical narratives often marginalize people with disabilities as social deviants and non-actors unimportant to broader historical questions. Yet, a 2005 Center for Disease Control report found that over 20% of adults in Kentucky live with a disability.[1] Dr. Anne Shordike sought to document the experiences of these numerous but historically invisible Kentuckians through oral history interviews. 

Oral History Generic

In 2007, Dr. Shordike applied for a Kentucky Oral History Commission (KOHC)
grant to conduct 30 interviews over three years. The project extended through 2011, and culminated in 207 oral histories. The result, "Living with Difference: Oral Histories of Life and Disability in Kentucky," is the largest disability oral history collection in the state and representative of rising scholarly and grass-roots interest in preserving the memories of people living with disability.  

At the time of the project, Dr. Anne Shordike served as a professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU). She practiced and taught for 25 years in varied clinical settings that included work with physically, mentally and intellectually disabled individuals. 

"The primary objective of this project was accessibility – to the richness of experience of the narrators," Dr. Shordike said. She foresaw the potential of an oral history collection to further public awareness of disability, advocate for the disabled and enable people with disabilities to speak for themselves. Her student oral historians also gained further field experience with people who identified or had been identified as disabled. The therapeutic nature of oral history as narrators articulated their understanding of their experiences and selves further motivated her to create the project.

“We hope that this collection is useful for all who are interested, persons with or labeled with disability, their friends and families, students and researchers,” said Dr. Shordike speaking for herself and EKU faculty and student project participants. “We are grateful to all of the narrators for their participation and to the Kentucky Oral History Commission for its support.”

Dr. Shordike and the EKU Department of Occupational Therapy applied for their first KOHC grant in the spring of 2007. KOHC funded stipends, travel costs and key tools for the start of the project, including recording equipment and supplies. The initial grant award amounted to $2,072 over 18 months. The project received extensions and additional funds through 2011, culminating in $3,555 awarded and 207 oral histories. KOHC houses the collection at the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS). Select oral histories are available online and all interviews are accessible in audio and transcript form at KHS.             

“Living with Difference” illustrates the possibility of oral history to enable underrepresented Kentuckians to contribute their meaningful stories to the historical narrative. The project also highlights KOHC’s role in facilitating enriching projects for narrators, interviewers and project staff from a variety of disciplines. Projects like “Living with Difference” provide spaces for Kentuckians to heal as they assert their own interpretations of their lives.

(Editor’s Note: The Kentucky Oral History Commission commemorates its 40th year in 2016.The only commission of its kind in the United States dedicated to providing financial and technical assistance to oral history repositories and oral historians, KOHC has positioned Kentucky historical organizations, libraries and archives to lead the way in collecting and preserving oral histories, like these. The Kentucky Historical Society administers and houses KOHC.)

[1] Anne Shordike, Shirley Peganoff O’Brien, and Amy Marshall,"From altruism to participation: Bridging academia and borderlands," in Occupational Therapies without Borders - Volume 2: Towards an ecology of occupation-based practices, eds. D. Sakellariou, N. Pollard & F. Kronenberg (London: Churchill Livingstone, 2010).



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