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UnDisciplined: The Architecture Of Access

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This week on Undisciplined we're talking about disability and accessibility in ancient Greece. You might think that accommodations for disabled people are a relatively new concept, but compelling new research suggests that ancient Greeks were thinking about accessibility as far back as the 4th century BC. Scholars found evidence that ancient architects built ramps specifically to help those with limited mobility.   

Debby Sneed is a lecturer in the Classics Department at California State University. Her latest research was published in the journal Antiquities. 


Shoshannah Buxbaum 0:03 - This is Undisciplined. I'm Shoshannah Buxbaum. This week we're talking about accessibility in ancient Greece. You might think that making public spaces accessible to disabled people is a recent development. After all, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed a little over 30 years ago. And part of that historic legislation was changing building codes to ensure that disabled people could more fully participate in public life and requiring things like ramps and elevators. But, fascinating new research in the journal Antiquities suggests that ancient Greeks were incorporating accessible design into their temples, all the way back to the fourth century BC. Classics scholar Debby Sneed found evidence that ancient Greeks built stone ramps in order to help people with mobility impairments access healing structures. Debby Sneed is a lecturer at California State University Long Beach in the classics department. Debby Sneed, thank you so much for joining me today.


Debby Sneed 1:00 - Thank you, Shoshannah. I'm happy to be here.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 1:03 - Okay, so to start off, your research specifically focuses on these stone ramps that were used to help people with various different mobility impairments access temples, and specifically these healing sanctuaries in ancient Greece. How widespread was it to see a stone ramp leading up to a building in ancient Greece?


Debby Sneed 1:27 - It's a great question. Ramps are actually not very common in the ancient Greek world Katja Sporn did a survey of ramps in ancient Greece, and she looked at ramps, specifically on temple buildings, and found that there were 18 ramps on temple buildings throughout the Greek world. So it's actually not very many ramps when you compare how many temples and how many sanctuaries exist in the ancient Greek world.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 1:50 - Yeah, and so you're looking at–specifically in this research–these healing sanctuaries. Can you tell me a little bit about what a healing sanctuary is? What kind of practices would be going on there and what the motivation to be having accessibility for those types of buildings be?


Debby Sneed 2:09 - Yeah, so healing sanctuaries are religious sanctuaries specifically dedicated to gods who specialize in healing. The healing God, the main healing God at least, is named Asclepius. He starts off as a kind of mythological hero figure, and then eventually becomes a God in his own right with a full mythology with a wife and children. And there were sanctuaries that were built as healing sanctuaries. And what would happen is, if you wanted to get healing from the God, you would travel to a healing sanctuary and you would make an offering to the God you would sleep at the sanctuary, you would have dreams where the God came to you and healed you or told you how to become healed. And then you would wake up and that would be it, you would either be healed or have instructions for how to become healed.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 2:57 - How did you sort of determine that these stone ramps at these healing structures that the purpose of them was for people with mobility impairments of various kinds to be able to access these sanctuaries?


Debby Sneed 3:13 - The connection here came a lot easier than I was expecting. Right? So we know that there are ramps at temples. I've learned about this from my earliest days as a student of classics, you know that there were ramps, and I was doing research. My PhD dissertation is on disability in ancient Greece. So I was thinking about disability, I was looking at the healing sanctuary of Asclepius and epidaurus. And I started to notice that a lot of the buildings have ramps, I started to notice that there were a lot of ramps actually and when I counted them all up, there are 11 stone ramps at the sanctuary of Asclepius at epidaurus. When you consider that there are only 18, ramps on temples throughout the Greek world 11 at one site is pretty remarkable and requires an explanation or at least it begs for one. And so I tried to think about, okay, what would be the purpose of this sanctuary having so many stone ramps, most sanctuaries don't have any ramps, and if they do, they've got maybe one on the main temple. It has to be specific to the purpose of the sanctuary. And so we have a healing sanctuary. We have evidence, we have inscriptions of the kinds of people who came here in search of healing from God. And there are a lot of people who are mentioned who have mobility impairments. And so when you think about the purpose of the sanctuary, and then you start to think of the kinds of people who came here for healing and it includes a lot of people with mobility impairments, you know, the argument kind of just fits together. When you think about buildings and sanctuaries, everything is built for its purpose.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 4:46 - Yeah, no, that's so fascinating. And when you sort of, when you lay it out, it seems sort of apparent that this is the reason behind it. So why do you think that other classics scholars haven't looked into this until very recently.


Debby Sneed 5:03 - It's a great question, you know, and it's difficult to impute motives to people for why they did or didn't look at certain things. But when it comes down to it, disability is a really new topic of scholarly inquiry. So when people looked at disability in academic fields, it was mostly medical fields, right, people looking for ways to solve the problem that they had identified as disability. And so in the humanities, like this, the idea of disability just wasn't really interesting to people not in the same ways that gender or sexuality or race have been. So the modern field of disability studies, which is something I engage with deeply, is relatively new. So we're talking, the disability rights movement started to develop and I don't know, mainly, like the 70s, in the 80s. And it sort of made its way very slowly into academic discourse. And, you know, really didn't start developing as an academic discipline until probably the 80s, or the 90s. So people just weren't thinking about this, right? When they think back about disability in the ancient world, they just, if they think about it at all, they just assumed it wouldn't have worked. Right?


Shoshannah Buxbaum 6:13 - Yeah. And that's so interesting. And in your, in this study, you outline what the Disability Studies framework is, and how that guides your research. So how does a contemporary disability studies framework work? And also what could you just generally explain what that means for people that don't know what it is? And how can you use our modern understanding of disability, to learn about something so far in the past.


Debby Sneed 6:39 - So the modern field of disability studies is a very vibrant field. And it's kind of, it's kind of separating now into a few different trends, it's developed enough that there are sort of different, different ways that people are engaging with it. And the sort of traditional way, the sort of what we might call, like, the most negative way of understanding disability is called the medical model of disability. And the medical model of disability says that, you know, disability is an internal problem, that disability resides in the body of an individual. And in order for somebody to succeed in a society, they need to overcome that disability, they need to overcome their own body, so that they can conform to a sort of non disabled standard. But then came along this social model of disability, and the social model has problems, but what I like about the social model is that it separates impairment from disability. The separation here is kind of like what early feminist studies did with sex and gender, right? So one is biological, the other social, so in this model, impairment is the actual physical impairment that somebody has, right. But disability is something else, disability is imposed on the disabled body, the impaired body, I should say, and it is a social thing. It's the negative social reaction that prevents somebody with an impairment from participating in society. And so with the social model, if you're going to sort of target reform, you need to focus on fixing society, because it's society and society's negative attitudes towards disability that are the actual problem.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 8:14 - Yeah. And so what did you find? I mean, I know this study looked specifically at, you know, the physical structures of ramps. But what, what kind of, you know, disability aids or assistive technology at the very basic level, where people with mobility impairments–because that's what you look at–what did you find in terms of the types of conditions that were reported for people and this sort of assisted technology, I guess, low tech, in the sense that people were using to adapt to the world around them?


Debby Sneed 8:47 - So this project, this article is a part of my book project and working on a book on it sort of ableism, disablism, and disability in ancient Greece. And so this is a part of that. And I look at physical disability generally. And the evidence is almost overwhelming, what we have, we have evidence of physical disability in basically every context. You know, I mentioned that the Greeks are a polytheistic society, they have a lot of different gods. Well they have the sort of core 12 gods, the Olympian gods who are kind of like the main ones, and one of those Gods is disabled, he's congenitally disabled, this is Hephaestus, the God of the Forge, the God of created fire. He's one of the 12 Olympian gods and he has a mobility impairment. And so we get these really great stories about Hephaestus. He creates robots, these golden maidens who are just like these little robots automata who help him around his workshop. He uses a crutch or a cane when he walks around. We have images of him in–I mean, sometimes people like calling it a wheelchair–it's not a wheelchair, it's like a winged chariot when he's traveling long distances. So in the mythological realm, we A lot of evidence for disability because one of our main Gods one of, you know, if you think about this idea of the ideal, the sort of ideal body in the ancient Greek world, we see it represented in art, you know, these sort of perfect human specimens. The gods represent this ideal, and one of those Gods is disabled. And so the question is, what does that mean? Right, there's a tomb from about 300 BCE in Italy, of a man whose lower leg was replaced with a wooden prosthesis that was covered bronze sheeting, so it would have been an expensive prosthesis for him. And so we have a lot of evidence for things like this–of people who are living and thriving and succeeding, right, who are also disabled.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 10:42 - Yeah. And so what got you interested in studying disability in ancient Greece in the first place? It was that you were interested in ancient Greece, and then you came across these other pieces of information that said, Oh, I really want to look into disability, or was it that you were interested in disability? And then Ancient Greece seemed interesting, like how did this sort of specific topic area, how did you say, Yeah, I want to write this book. I want to really dig into this.


Debby Sneed 11:18 - You know, we came across this topic, I started working on this topic during my master's program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. And I was interested in Greece, I was doing a master's in classics. And in my last semester of my master's program, I had masters exams. And so I spent a lot of my time really studying for my exams. And they ended, I passed my exams, I still had about a month left of classes, and I had a paper due in one of my seminars. And I kind of panicked because I spent my whole semester stressed about my exams. So I just sat there, this was a class with Dr. Sarah James at the University of Colorado, and I just flipped through our book. And I came across these figurines from the Hellenistic period, they're figurines of humans. And they have a wide variety of body types represented, we unfortunately call them the grotesque figurines, but they represent a lot of people with disabilities. But there was, I think, one paragraph in the textbook about them. And it said that there were hundreds, if not 1000s of these figurines, and I was like, in one paragraph? Come on. So I was like, I'll write about these. And then I started my PhD program at UCLA, and I took a class with Dr. John Papadopolis, on the archaeology of death, and kind of scrambled for what my paper topic would be, that would be really impressive. My first class with my future–he was on my dissertation committee. And so I looked at disability and in sort of mortuary contexts, you know, burials of people with disabilities. And I wrote up my final project, and he read it and said, you know, this is actually a really good dissertation project.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 13:04 - Yeah, absolutely. And so when I was doing research, getting ready for this interview, I came across an article that you wrote in 2017, for classics and social justice, it was called, I am not disabled. And it sort of talked about how–talked about your own relationship to being a disability researcher, and not having a disability. Can you talk a little bit about how that's informed your approach to your research?


Debby Sneed 13:32 - Yeah I definitely can. This has been a really important process for me and writing that article was a really important first step for me. So I am non disabled. And the more I started to engage in disability studies, you know, there is a broad understanding among disabled people, there's this kind of slogan, nothing about us, without us. Like disabled people are so used to in their lives being talked for, or advocated for, but not being talked to. Right? So people sort of assuming that they understand the life of a disabled person, that they understand the needs of a disabled person, without actually talking to them. And so, you know, the more that you do reading and disability studies, the more you become aware of your own positionality as either a disabled or a non disabled person, and what you can contribute, and importantly, what you can't contribute. And so, it's definitely possible for non disabled people to study disability, I do it a lot of people do it, right. But it's important to be ethical in your engagement with disability and Disability Studies. So for example, you know, I was invited to do a panel on teaching disability but also teaching disabled students. Right, and I can talk about teaching disability just fine. But if you're talking about teaching disabled students, you should talk to disabled students, and listen to what they have to say about what their classroom experience is like and what would be better for them, right? So it's not appropriate for me to decide what a better way to teach disabled people in the classroom, right? And so I use that opportunity to work with other people to reach out to a lot of my disabled colleagues. And that's something that has been really important to me is understanding the difference between my work on the ancient world, and anything that is sort of pulled into the modern world and the modern experience and sort of separating those three, becoming interested and invested in advocating for disabled people in the modern period, but recognizing what my limitations are as a non disabled person in those contexts.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 15:39 - Yeah, I mean, I've had sort of similar discussions and thought processes myself, I'm also non disabled, but I had done a special for Utah Public Radio that focused on disabled people and their experiences using technology during the pandemic. And I was so focused, as you said, on trying not to put in my own interpretation of other people's lived experiences, because they weren't mine. But as a journalist, and you as a researcher too, at the end of the day, you have to write it into something, you know, and you have to communicate it. And yeah, I mean, I definitely really struggled with how to put it together, and how to listen to people's lived experiences, because that's really the primary focus of my work, as well. And I imagine that's even a little bit harder when you're talking about ancient Greece, because you can't really interview disabled people that lived in that time period, necessarily.


Debby Sneed 16:42 - Yeah, not necessarily. But you know, this realization, this awareness of my positionality and sort of my role here in this has actually improved my work a great deal. So it has made my work better, it has made me feel more connected to my scholarship, you know, and I've had a lot of opportunities that I don't think I would have had otherwise. I'm currently finishing up edits on a chapter that I have co-authored with Mason Schrader–he's a graduate student at Texas Tech University–and we wrote a chapter about the ethics of disability inclusion on archaeological field projects, right. So we're both archaeologists, and we both want to go on projects. Mason is disabled, and he has experienced so many times of sort of discrimination against him being excluded from archaeological projects as a result of his disability. So we've been able to think deeply about, you know, the realities of life on an archaeological project, the purpose of work on an archaeological project, and work together. And it has just deepened my understanding of my discipline, and what my role in it is, you know, my work has just become so much better because of this recognition that I have come to about my position within it. But I understand what do you mean about, you know, how do you incorporate, especially in the ancient Greek world, and so one of the things I tried to do is just making sure that I understand my relationship with disability really well, so that I don't do a disservice to the ancient world, right, one of the things I can do is be very careful that I have confronted my biases, my internalized ableism, you know, that I have thought about these things deeply. And that's one way that I can sort of be respectful and that I can use my position as a non disabled scholar of this topic in a way that is ethical is to make sure that I've put in the work, to understand to do the reading, to listen to disabled people in what their relationship to disability is. Talking about ableism, talking about disablism, so that then when I do my research, I can do it in the most ethical way possible.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 18:56 - Yeah. And so I know you had mentioned also that it's hard to draw a line directly from your research in ancient Greece to now. But what, what would you say, studying disability in ancient Greece and studying accessibility to these healing sanctuaries that we've just been talking about and you research more broadly for the book that you're working on–how can that help us understand our current society?


Debby Sneed 19:25 - It's a great question. I have a another article that's coming out this year, and it's about infanticide. It's about disability now infanticide. And this is a really important topic when thinking about the modern period, because in the modern period, we have this kind of this myth that we've constructed a Western civilization. That Western civilization is built on the models that were created for us for Ancient Greece in ancient Rome. So if you've ever read the actual opinion, by Justice Harry Blackmun in Roe v Wade, he says that he's basing his decision on medical and medical legal history, right? So sort of a precedent. And he says his opinion is based on ancient Greek thought. So there's a document from ancient Greece, it's called the Hippocratic oath and the Hippocratic oath–maybe it dates to the fourth century BCE–and it says specifically no abortions. Okay, so how did he do this? Right? What justice Harry Blackmun did is he read the work of a classicist named Ludwig Edelstein. And Ludwig Edelstein had argued that the Hippocratic Oath was not something that most ancient Greek physicians abided by. And so, Justice Harry Blackmun starts his discussion of the legal precedent for Roe v Wade, with a classicist interpretation of the Hippocratic oath. And so when it comes to infanticide, right, we have this thing that we say as classicist, you can find it in textbooks, you can Google it, it'll be everywhere, that says that ancient Greeks killed disabled infants. And you can imagine that, yes, we can say that that's Ancient Greece. But we've seen how such eugenic thoughts have been put into action in the modern period, and used ancient precedent to justify it, it's just our responsibility to be sensitive to the reality of the ancient world, because we can't–Ludwig Edelstein could not have anticipated that his book on the Hippocratic Oath would be cited in one of the most consequential Supreme Court cases of the 20th century, right? Just like we can't know, the consequences of our own work. And so it's important to take an ethical approach to the ancient world to study these things, not to make assumptions, not to import our ableist biases onto the past. You know, just because we can't know what that will be used for. So if we are reckless in our arguments, that is potentially consequential in the modern period.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 22:00 - Yeah, you know, when you were talking about that, that really reminded me of a lot of what we're talking about now in American history. And people being really upset about teaching critical race theory, which is not actually being taught in schools, but people being upset about talking about the real history of racism in the United States, and not adopting our sort of whitewashed and sanitized version of what happened in the United States. And that made me think that if the history that we have written down and the predominant thinking among scholars has deep implications of what happens right now. And I can see parallels in history that wasn't even so long ago, and the current conflicts that people have about, you know, just history that was 300 something years ago.


Debby Sneed 22:57 - Yeah, and it really does matter. Right? So representation does matter. And it's important that we're just being honest about what the reality is. I'm not saying that ancient Greece is a disability utopia, right? I'm not saying that life was easy, or that it would have been better for disabled people in ancient Greece, I'm just trying to get at what is actually going on with disability in ancient Greece, you know, that matters that matters for individuals. And it also matters just culturally, you know that we understand the reality, especially if we want to maintain this myth–which I don't think we should– but if we insist on maintaining this myth about sort of the cultural superiority of the Greeks and Romans, and the connections between Ancient Greece and Rome in the modern period, we need to be honest about what life in ancient Greece and Rome were like.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 23:44 - Yeah, so my last question here is, what are the big questions for you that you and other researchers in your field–looking into disability in ancient Greece and Rome–what are the big things, new topics upcoming that you hope that yourself and other researchers are going to be looking into?


Debby Sneed 24:05 - There's a lot of really exciting work being done. There's a graduate student at the University College London named Kyle Lewis Jordan. I saw him give a talk over the summer about this Mummy, this Egyptian mummy, belonging to a woman named Geheset, who had cerebral palsy, he's focused on what was life like for Geheset? Not how disability was understood by other people from non disabled people to disabled people. But what about her life? What about her agency, the decisions that she made in her life? And this idea of trying to understand the lived experience of disability in the past, I think is one of the most exciting avenues of research going forward is not looking at broad concepts, but actually looking at the lives of disabled people.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 24:50 - Well, thank you so much for this amazing interview. I've learned so much. This has been super fascinating. So I've just been so Speaking with Debby Sneed, she's a lecturer in the classics department at California State University Long Beach. Her latest research was published in the journal Antiquities. Debby, thanks again so much for being here and this wonderful interview.


Debby Sneed 25:16 - This has been great. Thank you so much to Shoshannah.


Shoshannah Buxbaum 25:20 - Undisciplined is a production of Utah Public Radio, with support from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University. And if you happen to live in Utah, you can listen to us every Thursday at 10:30am on UPR. If you miss this, then you can listen to every episode of Undisciplined wherever you get your podcast. Our producer is Clayre Scott and our theme music is little idea by Benjamin Tisso. And I'm Shoshannah Buxbaum. Thanks for listening now go have big ideas.


Shoshannah Buxbaum is a multimedia journalist with a passion for telling narrative-driven stories about health, politics and culture. She's reported features, news spots and a half-hour special for Utah Public Radio. Before that she spent nearly six years at NJ PBS where she worked her way up from intern to producer. She’s a graduate from the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.