A U.S. History of People with Disabilities

By placing the experiences of people with disabilities at the center of U.S. history, “A Disability History of the United States” fundamentally reinterprets how we view our nation’s past.

| January 2013

  • A Disability History Of The United States
    “A Disability History of the United States” pulls from primary-source documents and social histories to retell American history through the eyes, words, and impressions of the people who lived it. Throughout the book, Nielsen deftly illustrates how concepts of disability have deeply shaped the American experience—from deciding who was allowed to immigrate to establishing labor laws and justifying slavery and gender discrimination.
    Cover Courtesy Beacon Press

  • A Disability History Of The United States

A Disability History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2012) by Kim E. Nielsen explores the pivotal role of people with disabilities in our nation’s past and their contribution to our laws, policy, economics, popular culture, and our collective identity. Covering the entirety of U.S. history from pre-1492 to the present, Nielsen uses various concepts of disability and dependency and focuses on mass movements and pivotal daily events, rather than individual triumphs, to deepen our understanding of disability. The concept of disability and the impressions of people with disabilities shape the American story in this excerpt from the introduction.

When I crossed the stage to receive my PhD in history in 1996, I had no plans to become a historian of disability. I love history: the captivating stories and the satisfying intellectual bite of a vigorous analysis. At the time, if asked, and if I’d been honest, I’d have considered the topic of disability too “soft”—all that pity and empathy—too boring, and too far removed from the real “hard” stories of history. Was I wrong!

I’ve learned that disability pushes us to examine ourselves and the difficult questions about the American past. Which peoples and which bodies have been considered fit and appropriate for public life and active citizenship? How have people with disabilities forged their own lives, their own communities, and shaped the United States? How has disability affected law, policy, economics, play, national identity, and daily life? The answers to these questions reveal a tremendous amount about us as a nation.

A Disability History of the United States places the experiences of people with disabilities at the center of the American story. In many ways, this is a familiar telling. In other ways, however, it is a radical repositioning of US history. As such, it casts new light on familiar stories (such as slavery and immigration), while also telling new stories (such as the ties between nativism and oralism in the late nineteenth century). It also makes clear that there has been no singular disability experience. Although people with disabilities share social stigmatization, and sometimes are brought together by common experiences and common goals, their lives and interests have varied widely according to race, class, sexuality, gender, age, ideology, region, and type of disability—physical, cognitive, sensory, and/or psychological.

While telling the history of people with disabilities, A Disability History of the United States will also tell the history of the concept of disability. These are two very different tasks. Throughout US history, disability has been used symbolically and metaphorically in venues as diverse as popular culture (freak shows, for example) and language (“That’s so lame”; “What a retard”; “special”). When “disability” is considered to be synonymous with “deficiency” and “dependency,” it contrasts sharply with American ideals of independence and autonomy. Thus, disability has served as an effective weapon in contests over power and ideology. For example, at varying times, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, poor people, and women have been defined categorically as defective citizens incapable of full civic participation.

The story of US history is often told as a story of independence, rugged individualism, autonomy, and self-made men (and occasionally women) who, through hard work and determination, move from rags to riches. Just as the colonists sought and gained independence from Great Britain in order to create a successful and powerful country, so must individual citizens seek and gain independence in order to create successful and powerful selves. The idealized notion holds that we are a nation of Horatio Algers, perpetual train engines chugging our way (I think I can, I think I can) up to the city on the hill, insisting that we can do it ourselves. And, of course, the US democracy is founded on the premise that citizens are capable. It is the responsibility and privilege of citizens to vote, contribute economically, and have a say in their government. As citizens, as good citizens, we are to “stand on our own two feet” and “speak up for ourselves” (ableist phrases, if ever there were). In this version of the national story, independence is good and dependency is bad. Dependency means inequality, weakness, and reliance on others.

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