A Disability History of the United States

A Disability History of the United States

by Kim E. Nielsen

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The first book to cover the entirety of disability history, from pre-1492 to the present
Disability is not just the story of someone we love or the story of whom we may become; rather it is undoubtedly the story of our nation. Covering the entirety of US history from pre-1492 to the present, A Disability History of the United States


The first book to cover the entirety of disability history, from pre-1492 to the present
Disability is not just the story of someone we love or the story of whom we may become; rather it is undoubtedly the story of our nation. Covering the entirety of US history from pre-1492 to the present, A Disability History of the United States is the first book to place the experiences of people with disabilities at the center of the American narrative. In many ways, it’s a familiar telling. In other ways, however, it is a radical repositioning of US history. By doing so, the book casts new light on familiar stories, such as slavery and immigration, while breaking ground about the ties between nativism and oralism in the late nineteenth  century and the role of ableism in the development of democracy.
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. As historian and disability scholar Nielsen argues, to understand disability history isn’t to narrowly focus on a series of individual triumphs but rather to examine mass movements and pivotal daily events through the lens of varied experiences. 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. Included are absorbing—at times horrific—narratives of blinded slaves being thrown overboard and women being involuntarily sterilized, as well as triumphant accounts of disabled miners organizing strikes and disability rights activists picketing Washington.
Engrossing and profound, A Disability History of the United States fundamentally reinterprets how we view our nation’s past: from a stifling master narrative to a shared history that encompasses us all.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This impressive, instructive book by Nielsen, a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay (The Radical Lives of Helen Keller), seeks to define the pivotal role ofpeople with disabilities in our nation’s past and their contribution to our laws, policy, economics, popular culture, and our collective identity. Disability, with its presumed need for dependency, challenges the American ideal of independence and autonomy.Nielsen uses various concepts of disability and dependency that go to “the heart of both human and American experience.” She accurately notesthe difference of mind-body beliefs of the Native Americans from the Europeans who brought disease and death with them; the colonial definition of those considered insane or undesirable; andthe many institutions housing the disabled. Nielsen does not sidestep the thorny issue of disabled war veterans, from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War to the present, with their surging costs and advances of laws protecting the rights of the disabled and guaranteeing accessibility in civilian life. Neilsen is at her best speaking not about the physically disabled and mentally ill, but of the legal and social barricades placed against women, minorities, and immigrants, who were classified “disabled” and blocked from full citizenship. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
American history examined sensitively and skillfully from the bottom up, grounded in the often shabby and sometimes exemplary treatment of disabled individuals. Nielsen's (History and Women's Studies/Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay; The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, 2004, etc.) interest in the treatment of the disabled began with research into the political activism of Helen Keller, perhaps the most famous of severely disabled Americans. The author organizes the book chronologically, beginning with the handling of disabled women and men by Native Americans. The disability spectrum within indigenous North American cultures expanded in unwelcome ways as European settlers spread disease among the Indians. Nielsen then moves on to the stories of newly arrived immigrants from Europe and Africa who were not fully functional physically or mentally. "Disability" has always been an elastic term; Nielsen explains how the definitions solidified in the legal and social sense in the 19th and 20th centuries. The definitions would deprive many individuals of full citizenship rights as institutionalization became a trend. That institutionalization fell disproportionately on the enslaved (usually but not always because of skin color), women and those individuals sometimes inaccurately characterized as lunatics or idiots. In a slightly more upbeat chapter, Nielsen explains how those marked as disabled slowly banded together to fight for their civil rights. Slowly, individuals with potential, despite being branded, began to receive educational and vocational opportunities. The final chapter marks the year 1968 as the beginning of improved understanding and enlightened policies. Individuals previously kept out of sight and mind began to enter the mainstream culture. A lively historical record that fills a gap in the literature.
From the Publisher
“At last: a truly inclusive history. This groundbreaking book braids together the history every American knows with the history most Americans have never even imagined—and our society has long forgotten. Fascinating, enlightening, absorbing, well-researched, and concise,  A Disability History of the United States isn’t just the book I wish I’d read in school. It’s the book I’d encourage every American to read.”
—Rachel Simon, author of The Story of Beautiful Girl and Riding The Bus With My Sister

“This brave book is full of surprises; a page-turner that tells a story I had not known. In every chapter there is at least one episode that made me shiver. Read it for Kim Nielsen’s fresh interpretations, read it for her wisdom. U.S. history will not look the same.”
—Linda K. Kerber, author of No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies
 “Path-breaking, meticulously researched, and drawing on a stunning array of sources, A Disability History of the United States fundamentally changes our  understanding of the nation’s past. I was amazed by Kim Nielsen’s ability to convey a richly peopled history while still detailing a national experience.  Disability, Nielsen reminds us, is beautifully and inextricably entangled with all the other forces that shape identities and communities. This remarkable ‘peoples’ story’ stretches the chronological, analytical, and thematic borders of U.S. and disability history. Everyone interested in U.S. and disability histories will benefit from reading this book.”
—Susan Burch, author of Signs of Resistance

“A wonderful, beautifully written, remarkable achievement that will certainly become a classic within the field and should become standard reading.”
—Michael A. Rembis, Director, Center for Disability Studies, University at Buffalo

“By displacing the able-bodied, self-subsisting individual citizen as the basic unit (and implied beneficiary) of the American experience, she compels the reader to reconsider how we understand personal dignity, public life, and the common good.”
Inside Higher Ed. 
"A scholarly yet stirring narrative of our nation’s uneasy relations—part pity and empathy, part discrimination and social stigmatization—with disabled people.”

“Nielsen excavates the long-buried history of physical difference in Amer­ica and shows how disability has been a significant factor in the formation of democratic values…The range of this book is marvelous.”
The Wilson Quarterly

“I think you’ll like this book, too, especially if you’re an advocate, a student of history, or just looking for a different angle on American society. For you, A Disability History of the United States is a book you can’t afford to miss.”
The Price County Daily

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Read an 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, how- ever, 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 some- times 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.

When disability is equated with dependency, disability is stigmatized.  Citizens with disabilities are labeled inferior citizens. When  disability  is understood  as dependency,  disability  is posited  in direct  contrast  to  American  ideals  of independence and autonomy.

In real life, however, just as in a real democracy, all of us are dependent on others. All of us contribute  to and benefit from the care of others—as  taxpayers,  as recipients of public education, as the children  of parents,  as those who use public roads  or transportation, as beneficiaries  of publicly funded medical  research, as those who do not participate in wage work during varying life stages, and on and on. We are an interdependent people. As historian Linda Kerber wrote, critiquing the gendered nature of the American ideal of individualism, “The myth of the lone individual is a trope, a rhetorical device. In real life no one is self-made; few are truly alone.” Dependency is not bad—indeed, it is at the heart of both the human and the American experience. It is what makes a community and a democracy.

The  use of disability  as an  analytic  tool  matters  in our  national  story  because  it forces  consideration  of the  strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions of American ideals. Taking note of race, class, and gender, scholars have examined the historical expansion of democracy.  It is time to do the same for disability. Additionally, a richer understanding of US history demands that we use disability to better understand the interdependent nature of democratic communities.

Disability is not the story of someone else. It is our story, the story of someone we love, the story of who we are or may become, and it is undoubtedly the story of our nation.  It is, quite simply, the American story in all of its complexities.  The story of US history is one of many efforts to define, contest, and enshrine a specific national body as best for the nation—a national body both individual and collective.

But . . . what is disability?  Who are people with disabilities? And conversely, what does it mean to be nondisabled?  When the US Supreme Court struggled to define obscenity in 1964, Justice Potter Stewart threw up his hands in frustration and wrote, “I know it when I see it.”2 It’s temptingly easy to do the same about disability. We generally assume that disability is a clearly defined category, unchanging and concrete.  Closer inspection, however, reveals that disability is often elusive and changing.  Not only do people with disabilities have a history, but the concept of disability has a history as well.

The dominant method of defining disability assumes disability to be a medical “problem” with a clear “cause” that must be “treated” in an effort to find a “cure.”
This framework considers disability  to stem from  bodily-based  defects and tends to define disabled  people  almost  exclusively  by those  diagnostic  defects
(and supposedly  nondisabled  people  by their  lack  of such  defects).
It erroneously presumes  disability  to be ahistorical—that is,  to have always had the same, unaltering  definition. Such a narrow conception  erases the widely diverse and rich lives of so many people with disabilities—for  whom  disability likely matters, but who also define themselves according to and whose lives are shaped  by race, sexuality, gender,  class, political  ideology, athleticism, their favorite hobby, whether or not they like yappy dogs, and the like. Disability can include disease or illness, but it often does not, and nondisabled people can be ill. Illness some- times leads to disability (but it often does not), and when it does the illness can go away but the disability remain. Illness, disease, and disability are not synonymous.

Defining disability is difficult—and that’s part of my argument.  Although  the definition theoretically  has  been based  on bodies, the categorization of bodies as disabled has been shaped by factors such as gender, race, sexuality, education,  levels of industrialization or standardization, access to adaptive  equipment or privacy,  and class. With age and medical care, as well as the vagaries of life, or simply daily context, one can move in and out of the category of “people with disabilities.” One can be temporarily disabled due to accident or illness. Disabilities can be easily “read” by others (signified by the presence of a wheelchair or the sounds of a speech impediment), or more difficult to discern (such as some psychological disabilities or neurological disabilities).

Disability can be contextual, and its meanings have changed over time.  A simplistic example:  a fellow historian and I once spent a delightful few days in Montreal at an academic conference. Those around me read my body as nondisabled.  The white cane of my friend led others to read her as blind and disabled. Waiters and cab drivers always looked to me to take the lead. However, and to their dismay, I don’t speak French. Luckily, my colleague is fluent in French.  In that context, my linguistic deficiencies became far more of an impediment, far more disabling, than her blindness.  Disability is not just a bodily category, but instead and also a social category shaped by changing social factors—just as is able-bodiedness.

This is not to argue that we should all hold hands and cheerfully insist that we’re all disabled in some way or another.  That ignores the lived reality that disability can bring physical discomfort or difficulty.  It also ignores the historical reality that being defined as disabled has made access to power and resources limited or difficult; and that hierarchies of power contribute to definitions of disability.  For example,  in the nineteenth  century, medical  experts  argued  that  menstruation and reproduction so impaired women’s bodies (those of middle and upper-class white women,  at least) that  their exclusion from higher education  and employment  was absolutely necessary, for themselves and for the greater  good of society.  And  in the  early twentieth  century,  if public transportation was not accessible, and employers  refused to hire a man with only one leg, then exclusionary  ideas and re- sources—not  the  condition  of being  one-legged—generated social segregation and unemployment. These are real consequences.

Meet the Author

The author of three books, including two on Helen Keller and one on Anne Sullivan Macy, Kim E. Nielsen is a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She lives in Green Bay.

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