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Writing Disability in Australia
Led by Dr Jessica White
(Status : Public)
  • Exposing the Thesaurus of Disability

  • As noted on the about the project page, while you can search Writing Disability in Australia by form or genre, you can also search the work records by type of disability. To repeat the statement there, we are very aware that this approach may be viewed as problematic given the history of classifying people with disability as objects, rather than as subjects and active participants in society. What we seek to do here, then, is to expose how the database's underlying thesaurus creates networks of connection between texts about disability.

    AustLit's 920,000 work records are connected to one another through a thesaurus of subject-concepts that create connections between otherwise disparate works: just as you can search on the genre 'science fiction' and connect a utopian text from 1675 to a picture book from 2016, you can search 'deafness and hearing impairment' and connect a short story from 1914 to a thriller from 2017. Constructed when the database was first built nearly twenty years ago, the thesaurus is not a fixed entity, but subject to change, adjustment, and rearrangement as the database content shifts and grows.

    The thesaurus creates connections where we might not otherwise find them in the vastness of Australian publishing. But like many taxonomies, the thesaurus tempts us to reduce works to concepts or to see people as objects, when those concepts reinforce medicalised approaches to disability.

    What this section seeks to do, then, is to expose the thesaurus structure that underlies the network of works about disability and by authors with disability in the AustLit database, to make visible what can be unspoken in terms of how we classify works.

  • Tracing the Thesaurus

  • This section invites you to track disability in the database from the highest-level subject-concepts through their branching sub-categories. For example, the 'parent' subject-concept, under which all others relating to disability are categorised, is Health and the human body. Under this falls the category Disabilities, which in turn includes the sub-categories Physical disabilities and Intellectual disabilities. Each of these has their own sub-categories, and so the results become narrower and narrower.

    The concepts are presented in tables, for ease of reading. If you prefer a more visual model, you can also see the structure as a flowchart (click to enlarge image).

    Not every work tagged with one of these subject-concepts forms part of the Writing Disability in Australia dataset. The concept 'skin' is a key example here: while works tagged with this concept include Carly Findlay's autobiography, for example, this is also the parent term for works about tattoos, sunburn, and itches.

    One aspect of database organisation that this section reveals is our occasional need for generic descriptors. In the tables below, you will see terms such as 'crippled' as well as 'cerebral palsy' or 'madness' as well as 'schizophrenia'. Here are the legacy worlds of decades of shifting representation and bibliographical imperatives, in 'crippled' Lady Anne in a story from 1873 and the self-sacrificial but unclassified madness of the widow in a story from 1866.

    The intent of this section is neither to argue for taxonomy as a means of exploring disability, nor to reinforce medicalised terminology, but simply to expose what is often unspoken (even within the database itself) and draw to the surface the networks that drive our discovery of Australian writing about disability.

  • The Thesaurus

  • Links in the right-hand columns will take you to a list of works to which that subject has been applied: the links will open in a new browser tab. Each list is organised by date, beginning with the earliest works. The further down the tables you go, the narrower the search results become.

    Note: These results return only works in the Writing Disability in Australia dataset. To search the entire database, enter the relevant subject term in Advanced Search.

  • Concept Sub-categories
    Health and the human body



    Mental illness

    Sleep disorders

    Physical illness


  • Concept Sub-categories

    Physical disabilities

    Intellectual disabilities

  • Concept Sub-categories
    Intellectual disabilities

    Down syndrome

  • Concept Sub-categories





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