Dark-dwellers as more-than-human misfits: a new synthesis of disability studies, environmental history and histories of human-animal relations.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol


There are at least a billion people on this planet who possess 'misfitting' bodies and who are consequently directly affected by disability. Many more people encounter different abilities when families, friends, and colleagues are taken into consideration. Disability - and the structures that create it - really matters. It may be marginal, but it is hardly a minority experience. Indeed, when we take time to look at the animal world, we find that 'extraordinary' bodies are all around us. Some dart through the darkness mapping the world through the art of echolocation. Others flourish in underground rivers via senses that allow them to 'see' without eyes. The way in which people in Britain and North America have understood these ways of surviving and thriving in the world have an important history, and that history reveals much about transforming cultural assumptions about what we have thought to be 'normal' bodies and abilities. Since the early nineteenth century, unusual nonhuman bodies have been imagined as variously 'deficient', 'super', 'expendable' and, most recently, highly 'vulnerable' in the face of environmental transformation. These are familiar labels; we find them at the heart of contemporary and historical conversations relating to human disability

Centred on a deep case study of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century imagination of dark-dwelling creatures and the impact of human systems and structures on their shrouded worlds since the mid-nineteenth century, this cutting-edge research project is really about the ways in which notions of what it means to be 'normal', 'able' and 'vulnerable' have been refracted through the multifarious bodies of animals that live in ways that are radically different from our own. Nocturnal creatures are among the most misunderstood creatures on earth, and that is principally because they are active in an environment from which we are normally excluded. This has facilitated the imagination of nocturnal animal bodies as variously 'abnormal', 'extraordinary', and 'deficient'. Ultimately, misunderstandings of these more-than-human bodies have also rendered them highly vulnerable to exclusion from environments to which they are adapted.

By building this case study and generating a brand new research agenda, the project offers an important intellectual and methodological intervention into the allied fields of animal history, environmental history and disability studies. While each of these fields are concerned in varying degrees with the production of identity and the impact of identity politics on the material world, they are yet to interact with each other in mutually generative ways. More-than-human histories need to embrace disability studies approaches in order to better appreciate the wide array of engagements which constitute human relationships with the natural world and the ways in which abled and disabled identities have been constructed and refracted through and via the bodies of our animal kin. Disability studies needs to turn to the more-than-human world as a means of pivoting around the concept of disability itself; to challenge what we think we know about historical discourses of ability and normativity, re-energising a stagnating conversation about the conditions that exclude and marginalise the 'differently-abled'.

This research is crucial in other ways, too. In exposing connections between discourses of normalcy, ability, vulnerability and adaptation across the human and more-than-human realms, it may be possible to generate recognition of shared vulnerabilities that transcend the human-nonhuman divide that has permitted the marginalisation of living beings across the course of modernity. Engagement and impact activities benefiting Key Stage 2 children, their teachers, sight-impaired individuals and vision clinicians highlight the potential of thinking creatively about diversity and vulnerability as issues that unite rather than isolate all living beings.

Planned Impact

Four key publics - Key Stage 2 children, teachers, visually impaired people and vision clinicians - will benefit from two major impact activities associated with this research project:

Key Stage Two primary children who visit Bristol Zoo's education centre will benefit from the production of a prototype flexible-delivery PDF educational resource that will transform their understanding of the meaning of diversity, ability and vulnerability across human and more-than-human contexts. The resource will also empower teachers to teach diversity differently. Co-developed across the final six months of the project, and in partnership with education consultant and environmentalist Ed Drewitt and the Bristol Zoological Society, the resource will use archival material to highlight the diverse forms and adaptations of beings living on our planet and the various ways in which they have been thought to engage with their worlds. In so doing, it will transform understanding, not only of the endless ways of surviving and thriving in the world, but also of the ways in which animal lives have been impaired by human activity. In the process, the resource directly addresses the question of how we talk to children about crucial diversity issues wherever they arise. Teachers will also benefit from a resource that provides new ways of teaching elements of the 2015 Key Stage 2 curriculum relating to the evolution and adaptation of living things in relation to their habitats, as well as elements pertaining to well-being and understandings of self.

Visually impaired people in and around Bristol as well as vision clinicians at the Bristol Eye Hospital will benefit from the production of a prototype approach to rehabilitation in the context of sight loss. Visually impaired people will learn techniques through which to reconsider their own capacities and experiences, while vision clinicians will learn new ways of supporting people suffering from sight loss to adjust to their impairment. In collaboration with artist-practitioner Catherine Lamont-Robinson, the team will incrementally develop a method of using archival materials relating to 'seeing in the dark' to encourage people with visual impairments to reflect on their own stories of difference, ability, adaptation and vulnerability. A working group of between eight and ten sight impaired participants from the Bristol area - alongside vision clinicians - will meet four times across the final six months of the project (February-July 2022). Together, the workshops work to innovate ways of challenging any sense that patients may have that they are 'deficient' and to develop ways of recognising the abilities and resilience they have developed through sight loss. Using a range of artistic materials, the patient group will creatively respond to the project's findings as they emerge, reflecting on their own experience of difference, adaptation and ability in the process.

In addition to these core societal impacts we will disseminate project findings in the following ways:

Research findings and the ways in which they have been brought to bear on the educational resource described above will be of interest to local wildlife interest groups, especially those with an educational agenda. These include the Avon Wildlife Trust and the Bristol Natural History Consortium. We will also seek to establish a presence at the Bristol Festival of Nature (June 2022).

Research findings and the ways in which they have been brought to bear on the development of the 'Storying "Diffability"' workshops described above will be of interest to disability organisations, particularly those relating to visual impairment. These include the RNIB at a national level, and schools in the region such as New College Worcester School for the Blind.


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Description 1. It became clear that by developing an understanding of a history of the senses that is focused on 'strange' and 'super' nonhuman senses, we can better understand the ways in which the relationships between bodies and environments have been understood historically.
2. Recognition of sensory diversity across the natural world can help to build a sense of empathy for human sensory diversity, and a recognition that all beings have a right to live in environments where they can not only survive, but thoroughly thrive.
3. History matters in this regard, because it shows us that attempts to understand the ways of life of other beings have been impacted by technological, sensory, and cultural barriers. These barriers - and the erroneous kinds of knowledge that they produce - have had real-world consequences for the lives of beings with 'different' bodies and modes of experience to that of the normative human being.
4. That animal and environmental historians have much to learn from disability studies scholarship and conceptual approaches. We refracted emerging ideas about ability through the more-than-human lens and found that thinking about the concept in this way thoroughly deepened and broadened our comprehension of what is has meant - historically and still today - to be an 'able' member of a global multispecies community.
5. That Disability studies scholars need not fear engagement with 'the historical animal'. Despite problematic historical precedents where disabled people and animals have been equated with one another, there is much that could be generative if the two categories are considered alongside each other in their specific spatial and temporal contexts.
6. The process of producing the KS2 and KS3 resources showed us that there is much enthusiasm among the teaching community for resources that approach key scientific, historical, and societal issues in ways which speak to the current climate and biodiversity crisis. This is, perhaps, part of the 'greening' of the National Curriculum.
Exploitation Route 1. Our research proposes a range of new directions for research at the intersection of animal history and disability studies. These focus mainly on a consideration of the idea of ability in other times and places, and beyond the nocturnal context.
2. The research equally highlighted the lack of historical work on the night-time/dark environments - beyond quite sweeping cultural works. Our research highlights the expansive potential of undertaking more work in this area.
Sectors Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Art-Senses Workshops 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We ran a series of four art workshops -working with artist educator Catherine Lamont-Robinson - which explored sensory abilities and the ways in which we describe our unique sensory worlds to others. This reached undergraduate students and sight-impaired members of the general public. As part of this we also engaged with vision clinicians based at the Bristol Eye Hospital.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Nocturnal City 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Working with Bristol City Poet, Caleb Parkin, we used my AHRC-funded research to work with the general public at the Bristol Festival of Nature to develop ideas about the lives of wild animals in our nocturnal cities, their sensory needs and the conservation imperatives relating to them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022