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Spotlight on PGT alumna Kirstie Neale

Having just graduated in her MA in the History of Medicine, Kirstie reflects on the course and why she chose Warwick for postgraduate study.

Are there any academics in particular that stood out to you when you were considering applying to Warwick?

Yes – one of the first people I met (albeit virtually) and was immediately impressed by was Professor Mathew Thomson. Asides from his encyclopaedic knowledge, Mathew has fascinating research interests, particularly in mental health and psychiatry, and many overlap with the field of disability and medicine broadly speaking.

Dr Claire Shaw was another academic who stood out from the start with her specialism in the history of disability and marginality. As a Deaf person, I was drawn to her work on Deafness in the USSR, and again another person who has a real depth of clarity in her thinking!

What did you particularly enjoy about your course?

History of Medicine was a topic that I never explored thoroughly before. Dealing with Deafness and disability, I am usually somewhat critical of medicine as it has a long, complicated past, for both ill and good. For me, this course was a good opportunity to explore this further. I also learnt a lot about historiography, methodology, and theory, all of which have made me a better historian.

Do you have any advice for someone looking at postgraduate study?

Before you enrol, reach out to course convenors, admissions teams, previous students - anyone you can find! Work out what you would like to gain from the programme, and the opportunities available for you. If you’re not sure, don’t just jump into it – but equally, remember that if it doesn’t pan out to be how you expected, it’s only a year!

Why did you choose to study history?

I adore history. I have enjoyed the flexibility and independence of choosing an important topic, and carrying out research often discovering histories which are excluded from mainstream textbooks. Studying disability activism, for example, is vital for understanding and remembering extremely important historical moments. After all, without some of these campaigns (take, for example, the Block Telethon protests in 1990/2), I wouldn’t have the rights I have today as a disabled person.

This year, I have focused on Deaf-led activism, especially the National Union of the Deaf. Again, historical enquiry not only helps to contextualise the present situation but also helps to unravel the negative stereotypes associated with Deafness, or document the history of the recognition and acceptance of British Sign Language (BSL). Current politics and policy solutions often fall short if they lack the historical context of what has previously been successful (or not)!

In the interests of encouraging people to think about disability and Deaf histories, I would recommend looking at resources from the UK Disability History and Heritage Hub (I am a little biased as a co-Founder!), the National Disability Arts Collection & Archive, and British Deaf History Society, of course there are lots of others too!

If you could meet one historical figure, who would that be and what would you ask them?

I would have loved to have met Dorothy Miles who was influential to developing modern sign language poetry here in the United Kingdom and over the pond in the United States of America! She was a Welsh poet and Deaf activist, full of creativity and had a real passion for change.

If I were to have met her, I would ask her ‘How can we use performance and arts as a form of activism?’

What was the most important thing you learnt from your time at Warwick?

There are so many different valuable subjects in history, and you can always learn something from someone else’s research – even when you initially think you have nothing in common! Whilst I have been at Warwick, I have had numerous conversations, which transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries and historical time periods/contexts. I helped to organise a roundtable panel with the Centre for the History of Medicine, exploring the ambiguous term ‘sensitive histories’. To prepare for this, I had countless discussions with Imogen Knox (an early modern historian interested in all things supernatural) and Arielle De Leon (specialising in Victorian psychiatry). From the start, I am not sure that this is a trio that I would ordinarily put together!

Similarly, I have noticed the value in reaching out to a broader audience, and engaging with others on research projects. Disability and Deaf histories are often kept confined to a specific demographic, and I am always interested in explaining how different stories overlap, and add so much to a bigger picture. Where do we find these stories? Why are they not included in the dominant narratives? How can we change this?

What would you say to someone thinking about studying history at Warwick?

Warwick is full of interesting people, buzzing with different subfields, and varied in its areas of specialism. From taught modules to research centres, there is a lot to get involved with in the history department!

What is your favourite place on campus?

Besides from constantly being close to a coffee shop, I enjoyed spending my lunch break at the Piazza on a summer’s day! I also love the Warwick Arts Centre – it’s a great spot for people-watching, but also a casual place to work, and there’s always a lot going on – from orchestra rehearsals to cinema and performances.

What’s next for you?

Fortunately, I have received funding for a PhD at the University of Cambridge and the British Library, which will start in October 2022. For this collaborative project, I will be researching ‘Labour and Livelihoods of Disabled People, c.1970-2015’. In the meantime, I will remain active in my role as Senior Research for the first ever disability-focused policy thinktank, The Disability Policy Centre. Please do feel free to reach out via my socials if you want to chat more on any of these topics!

Kirstie is smiling head-on at the camera. There is a white plain background. She is a white cis-gender woman, has chest-length brown hair, a round face, brown eyes, tinted red lips, long vertical pearl earrings, and is wearing a spotted black dress.