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Applications Invited for AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Studentship with RNIB: Blindness, Disability, and Literacy in Britain

Queen Mary University of London and the Royal National Institute for Blind People, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral PhD Studentship (Department of English): 'Blindness, Disability, and Literacy in Britain'. Deadline Friday 13 May 2016.

13 April 2016

The Project

This project will examine changing ideas of blindness, disability, and literacy in Britain. Using the resources of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), it will investigate key moments in the history of blindness by focusing on initiatives to enable blind and partially sighted people to read. Since being founded in 1868, RNIB has played an essential role in promoting literacy education among people with visual disabilities; its archive represents a powerful and uniquely intimate historical record of the efforts to improve the lives of people with disabilities. The project will provide a historical perspective on changing conceptions of literacy among people with visual disabilities from the nineteenth century to the present day. It will do so by examining key stages in the development of blind literacy including braille, talking book records, scanning devices, and contemporary assistive technologies designed to help blind people to read independently.

RNIB is a charity offering support to almost two million people living in the UK with sight loss. Its library holds a valuable and distinctive collection of historically important material relating to the history of blind and partially sighted people over the past two centuries. The student working on this project will consult its numerous holdings related to the topics of education, rehabilitation, and wellbeing. The extensive collection will allow the researcher to appraise the controversies arising from the use of new technologies and to establish their impact on the lives of people with disabilities who were unable to read in conventional ways. Its resources will be used to illustrate the actual lived experience of blind people in the UK. One of the project’s aims will be to recover the voices of blind people themselves from an array of archival sources in order to determine how they felt about the impact of literacy education on their lives.

This project will address the following research questions:

  • How have blind and partially sighted people responded to various literacy initiatives from braille all the way up to today’s digital assistive technologies?
  • What controversies, conflicts, and debates have arisen from the use of new technologies and changing conceptions of literacy?
  • What impact has reading had on the lives of blind and partially sighted people?
  • To what extent did blind readers think of themselves as a group with distinctive needs, capabilities, and desires setting them apart from other readers?
  • What role has literacy played in helping people cope with mental health issues, social exclusion, and other problems disproportionately affecting people with visual disabilities?


The Supervisory Committee for this project has been put together to ensure that the student can draw on first-rate academic support while maximising opportunities for working in partnership with RNIB. The holder of the studentship will be registered as a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Queen Mary and will fulfill all the requirements of the PhD degree there under the supervision of Dr Matthew Rubery (Reader in Nineteenth-Century Literature) and Professor Michèle Barrett (Professor of Modern Literary and Cultural Theory). Further supervision will be provided by Robert Saggers (Heritage Services Manager for RNIB) and Mark McCree (Senior Manager: Library and Heritage Services for RNIB), who will offer guidance on issues relating to the archive, access to resources, and RNIB's history. Training and other forms of support will be provided by both organisations. The student, in consultation with the supervisory team, will have scope to develop both the topic and approach to suit their particular interests.

The Studentship

The award is funded by the AHRC. The studentship begins in October 2016 and covers fees and stipend at the Research Council UK level (RCUK). Further support toward travel and research costs will be provided by RNIB.


Eligible candidates will be UK or EU nationals with strong academic records who will normally have completed (or be near completion of) a Masters degree or equivalent post-graduate qualification in literature, history, or a related subject. The successful candidate must meet AHRC eligibility criteria. Full details concerning eligibility are available from the AHRC’s ‘Training Grant Funding Guide’ on the AHRC website.


Applications are to be made via the normal Queen Mary online application site; applicants must also send these materials directly to Dr Matthew Rubery ( and to Professor Jerry Brotton (, Director of Graduate Studies, Department of English and Drama at Queen Mary. Please direct any enquiries to Dr Rubery.

The application must include a CV, a short cover letter or research proposal outlining the candidate’s particular research interests or expertise relevant to the project, and two academic references.

The deadline for applications is 13 May 2016. Interviews will be held in early June at RNIB’s office at 105 Judd Street, London WC1H 9NE.



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