Instructor Reflection – A Closer Look into Physical Disabilities: An Oral History Video (2.1)

by Bill Wolff

There are two moments in this outstanding oral history project that drive home the importance of video for creating, sharing, and enhancing the field of oral history. Both moments are in part II: first, at 4:26, Marty’s facial expression that emerges after he says, “She went down that ride.” Second, during the 6 seconds between 6:24 and 6:29, when the viewer is shown Denise’s right hand, which is curled into itself at the wrist. These two moments highlight two of the main themes that are revealed through this video: internal resolve and dealing with outside perception. And neither of these moments would have been nearly as effective in a traditional written oral history. Indeed, in traditional written oral history facial expressions and narrator movements wouldn’t even be a part of the history, and audio oral histories, such as those taken by Studs Terkel, would be similarly bereft of such moments.

And these two moments—the stern, combative, and assured look on Marty’s face and Denise’s discomfort and struggle moving her arm—reveal a history of what it has been like to live with a physical disability in a society that stares without seeing. By showing us those two moments (especially by slowing down the video that shows Denise’s arm) Sarah forces the viewer to see, internalize, and comprehend what is traditionally gawked at. These moments are compounded by the abrupt, no-holds-barred, “she had to do what she had to do” ending that casts a doubt on whether any of what is being seen is going have any impact at all. It is a brutal indictment of the past and a challenge for a present that has yet to learn much from the injustices done to those who have physical and other disabilities.

This is the power of Sarah’s video, a video that by itself helped confirm for me the educational value of the oral history video assignment. Completed during the first semester I taught the assignment—or any assignment that asked Writing Arts majors to compose with video—I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted to students to step out of their comfort zone, learn new research a methodologies, and compose history in a new way. Unseen in this video is the struggle Sarah went through to create the project. Her narrators were resistant to the interview process, and it is remarkable how well she was able to extract what were truncated narrations into such a seamless composition.

Even more remarkable is what the video is: a cognitive, historical, and technological artifact that engages viewers at the level of ethos, pathos, and logos. The array of signs and texts contained within it confounds, challenges, and asks viewers to rethink basic assumptions about individuals, institutions, and society. And, because it has been published on YouTube to the Oral History Video Archive ( with a Creative Commons license, it is an important, meaningful, and revealing part of our social fabric that has the potential to impact the lives and creativity of the thousands who view it.