Disability Histories

Disability Histories

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The field of disability history continues to evolve rapidly. In this collection, Susan Burch and Michael Rembis present nineteen essays that integrate critical analysis of gender, race, historical context, and other factors to enrich and challenge the traditional modes of interpretation still dominating the field.
As the first collection of its kind in over a decade, Disability Histories not only brings readers up to date on scholarship within the field but fosters the process of moving it beyond the U.S. and Western Europe by offering work on Africa, South America, and Asia. The result is a broad range of readings that open new vistas for investigation and study while encouraging scholars at all levels to redraw the boundaries that delineate who and what is considered of historical value.
Informed and accessible, Disability Histories is essential for classrooms engaged in all facets of disability studies within and across disciplines.
Contributors are Frances Bernstein, Daniel Blackie, Pamela Block, Elsbeth Bösl, Dea Boster, Susan K. Cahn, Alison Carey, Fatima Cavalcante, Jagdish Chander, Audra Jennings, John Kinder, Catherine Kudlick, Paul R. D. Lawrie, Herbert Muyinda, Kim E. Nielsen, Katherine Ott, Stephen Pemberton, Anne Quartararo, Amy Renton, and Penny Richards.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252080319
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 12/15/2014
Series: Disability Histories Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 753,792
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Susan Burch is an associate professor of American studies and former director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity at Middlebury College. She is the author of Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to World War II. Michael Rembis is an assistant professor of history at the University at Buffalo, SUNY and the director of the Center for Disability Studies. He is the author of Defining Deviance: Sex, Science, and Delinquent Girls, 1890–1960.

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Disability Histories

By Susan Burch, Michael Rembis


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09669-3


Disability, Dependency, and the Family in the Early United States


KEYWORDS:Centuries: eighteenth; nineteenth; Geographical Areas: North America; Sources: manuscripts and archival materials, government documents; Themes: family, daily life, and community; citizenship and belonging; culture; war

In October 2011, the New York Times reported the effective demise of the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports (CLASS) Act following an announcement by the U.S. government that it would not implement the law. This was disappointing news for many disabled people and their families, as the act would have helped defray some of the costs of disability-related care. Seeking to put a human face on the story, the authors of the article drew readers' attention to a woman whose family was apparently "staggering under the burdens of caring for her bedridden parents," one of whom was an amputee. Families like these, the report implied, would have benefited greatly from the CLASS Act. Now, however, they faced continued hardship and possible financial ruin. Disabled people in the article are portrayed as fundamentally passive and dependent, "burdens" who require a lot from their families but contribute little.

Disability is commonly associated with dependency in American culture. The New York Times' coverage of the CLASS Act reflects this. As the paper's story indicates, such associations tend to promote the idea that disabled people are only ever the recipients of care. This chapter challenges such a view by examining the family lives of disabled veterans in the early United States, from 1776 to roughly 1830. The evidence presented suggests that most disabled veterans did not merely receive care but were also significant caregivers. By foregrounding disability, the chapter sheds fresh light on the history of the new nation and the family and shows that experiences of disability are always profoundly shaped by social and cultural factors.

Revolutionary War Pension Files and the Study of Disability

The Revolutionary War, in which the United States gained independence from Great Britain, was fought between 1775 and 1783. In terms of human lives, it was an incredibly costly conflict. An estimated 25,000 American service personnel, or roughly 12.5 percent of General Washington's forces, died during the war and perhaps as many as another 25,000 were wounded and survived. In recognition of the hardships endured by Revolutionary soldiers, Congress enacted a series of national pension laws for veterans after the war. These laws concerned two types of pensions: invalid pensions and service pensions. Invalid pensions were granted to veterans who had been injured in the war; service pensions were awarded primarily on the basis of length and type of military service.

By the early 1820s, around 20,000 Revolutionary War veterans had received pensions from the United States, either as invalids or service pensioners. The application papers these men submitted to get a pension are a treasure trove of information. Few historians, however, have examined this rich source with questions of disability in mind. As this chapter demonstrates, used carefully, pension documents have much to tell us about the position of disabled people in early America.

In the pages that follow, special attention is given to the files of 153 disabled Revolutionary War veterans. These veterans can be classified as "disabled" because they received invalid pensions from the federal government and were therefore categorized as such by the authorities. According to invalid pension legislation, a veteran was considered disabled if he was either fully or partially incapable of laboring for a living. Given that labor was generally regarded as men's work in the early Republic, this definition of disability was a highly gendered one.

Later on in their lives, starting around 1818, the disabled veterans at the center of this project also applied for and received service pensions. The pension papers of these men are especially rich historical sources, as their files generally contain more information about their lives than those of veterans who were pensioned as invalids only. Focusing on these men has the added advantage of allowing us to compare the situation of disabled veterans with nondisabled veterans. Irrespective of whether they were "disabled" or not, all veterans who applied for service pensions had to submit evidence according to the same rules and regulations. Thus, the applications for service pensions submitted by nondisabled veterans contain the same kinds of information about the lives of applicants as those made by disabled veterans.

A comparative approach to the pension files is particularly helpful when thinking about the significance of disability in the lives of ex-servicemen, as it allows us to filter out the general conditions of veterans' lives from those pertaining to disabled veterans specifically. The observations regarding disability and the family presented in this chapter are based on a comparison of the pension papers of the targeted 153 disabled veterans with those of an equivalent number of nondisabled veterans. The difference between the two groups is that the former received invalid pensions before taking up service pensions while the latter did not. The only other major criterion used to select the two groups was that all the veterans studied submitted applications under the service pension act of May 1820. The reason for targeting these men is that the documentation produced as a result of this law is arguably the most informative found in the Revolutionary War pension files, especially in relation to the study of the family.

The general profile of the two groups is remarkably similar. Both disabled and nondisabled veterans tended to come from New England and were overwhelmingly white. They were also of a similar age; when they made their pension declarations in the 1820s, applicants were, on average, in their mid-sixties. They were also fairly poor compared to the standards of the time; over half of both groups had estates valued at less than $50. In terms of their collective characteristics, disabled and nondisabled veterans were virtually identical. The evidence presented in this chapter indicates that the family lives of disabled and nondisabled veterans were also quite similar.

The Family in Early America

Nowadays, the difference Americans draw between family and household seems quite clear. Family usually refers to a group of people related by blood or marriage, while household is used to designate a group of people who live together in the same dwelling. In early America, this distinction was less clear cut. Consider the following statement given by 70-year-old disabled veteran Elijah Estes in August 1820: "My family consists of myself my wife aged 70 years One free person named William Ham aged 10 years & a whiteman named Robert Thompson aged 20 years."

Estes's declaration was part of his application for a service pension under the act of May 1820. As neither Ham nor Thompson was apparently related to the old veteran, Estes's inclusion of them as members of his "family" is telling. Like other early Americans, family for Estes seems to have been based as much on co-residence as on kinship. The "family" details submitted by ex-servicemen in response to the 1820 act need to be seen in this light. When applicants listed the family members living with them, they were not necessarily referring to relatives. To a large extent, the family information given by veterans in the 1820s is probably a better reflection of the composition of their households than of the composition their families—at least in the way we understand these terms today. My comments in this chapter relate primarily to the family as a unit of co-residence rather than one of kinship, even though early Americans did sometimes understand family in kinship terms.

Families were the fundamental social unit of early American society. Economic production, political representation, and the transfer of property between generations were all based on the family. From a disability history perspective, however, perhaps the most significant family function at this time was the provision of care. In an era that predated the widespread existence of special care facilities for sick and injured people, early Americans usually turned to their families for help in times of illness or incapacity. Families were expected to provide care and were under a legal obligation to do so. To borrow the words of one historian, the family was quite simply early America's "premier welfare institution."

Most families at this time were organized along patriarchal lines. Family and household heads were nearly always white males. Although not impossible, it was fairly unusual for women or blacks to assume household headship. In 1790, for instance, less than one-thirteenth of the households detailed in the U.S. census were headed by women and a staggering 92 percent of black Americans were enslaved and therefore subordinate members of their masters' households. Such figures plainly attest to the formidable influence of gender and race on the structure of the early American family.

As heads of families, white men were very powerful. They controlled all the major resources of their households, including the labor of their children and the property of their wives. They were also permitted to inflict corporal punishment on family members should they see fit. In the eyes of the law, husbands, fathers, and masters ruled supreme within their households. Wives and co-resident children, along with slaves and servants, were regarded as dependents.

Family heads were responsible for the support of their dependents and were expected to use their considerable powers to that end. Male heads were arguably the least dependent members of a household, at least in theory. This point needs to be borne in mind when considering the issue of disabled veterans and dependency in the early United States. If a veteran became the recognized head of a family and maintained that position, he could never, in principle, become a dependent in the same way as women, children, and most black Americans. In making this point, however, it is also important to recognize that few Americans were ever truly independent in the early United States.

Despite the ideology of racialized patriarchy that underpinned early American families, relationships within those families, even between fathers and children, were usually characterized by interdependence. Without the productive contributions of their wives, children, or other "dependents," most family heads would have found it incredibly difficult to produce enough to subsist comfortably. Given the rural and preindustrial character of the early American economy, family labor was crucial to a household's well-being. All family members, including heads, were enmeshed in webs of reciprocity that were difficult to break. An examination of the family lives of disabled veterans highlights this point.

Family Care in the Revolutionary Period

During the Revolutionary War, America's military Medical Department was frequently unable to meet all the care needs of sick or wounded troops. Military hospitals were often poorly staffed and supplied and eyewitness accounts of the conflict abound with reports of patients going without adequate food or bedding. In one way, those who got into a hospital were actually quite lucky: at least they had a roof over their heads. Sometimes sick and wounded men did not even get this most basic of amenities but were left outside without shelter, exposed to the elements.

To make up the shortfall in medical care provided by the army, many soldiers turned to their families for assistance. That they did so underscores the key role the family played in the early American system of care. Even at times of severe social dislocation, such as during the Revolutionary War, families remained central to the economies of care that sustained early Americans through periods of illness or injury.

Family care seems to have been particularly easy to access in the early years of the war, when most of the fighting took place around Boston. Given that almost a quarter of American troops came from Massachusetts, many of the men injured during the Siege of Boston (1775–76) were close to their homes at the time of their injuries. Consider, for example, the case of disabled veteran Benjamin Farnum, who was wounded in his leg at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. As Farnum was from the nearby town of Andover, news of his wounding quickly reached his home. Obviously concerned about his condition, family members speedily arranged for him to be brought back to Andover where they could oversee his care. Other soldiers who were injured close to their homes also appear to have benefited from swift family assistance.

Not all soldiers were as fortunate as Farnum. Many fell ill or were wounded a long way from home. Even in these cases, some men were able to call on family for help. It was not uncommon, for instance, for family members to travel great distances to aid sick or wounded soldiers in far-off places. When this was impossible, soldiers who were fit enough sometimes made the long journey home without family company. Numerous ill or injured soldiers did their utmost to get back to their families for care whenever they could and by whatever means necessary. Family care, however it was delivered, undoubtedly played a crucial role in the survival of many Americans during the war. Without it, the death toll of America's fight for independence would probably have been much greater.

Solomon Parsons was one of the men injured in the war who survived the conflict to be pensioned as an invalid. Wounded in the thigh at Monmouth in June 1778, Parsons returned home to his father's place a few months later to recuperate. His recovery was long. According to a letter found in his pension file, the veteran was unable to work for seven years because of his wounds. During that time, Parsons's father supported him. As a significant majority of disabled veterans were young and unmarried when they joined the army, other invalid pensioners probably had similar experiences. With no homes of their own, many sick and wounded soldiers had little choice but to return to the homes of their parents following their discharge from the army.

Like Parsons, some returning veterans were so incapacitated by their wounds that they could do little for their own support. It was during the earliest phases of their convalescence that disabled veterans were probably most dependent on help from their families, especially their parents. It was very rare, though, that disabled veterans were totally incapacitated for the rest of their lives. Most injured ex-servicemen eventually recovered their health enough to make some kind of economic contribution to the households in which they resided. Moreover, although injured ex-servicemen may have lived in their fathers' homes for a time while they recuperated, most did not remain there long. Instead, they fairly quickly went on to establish their own families and create new households of which they were the heads.


Excerpted from Disability Histories by Susan Burch, Michael Rembis. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Keywords ix

Acknowledgments xi

Re-Membering the Past: Reflections on Disability Histories Susan Burch Michael Rembis 1

Part 1 Family, Community, and Daily Life

Part introduction and guiding questions 15

1 Disability, Dependency, and the Family in the Early United States Daniel Blackie 17

2 Thomas Cameron's "Pure and Guileless Life," 1806-1870: Affection and Developmental Disability in a North Carolina Family Penny L. Richards 35

3 Parents and Professionals: Parents' Reflections on Professionals, the Support System, and the Family in the Twentieth-Century United States Allison C. Carey 58

4 Historical Perceptions of Autism in Brazil: Professional Treatment, Family Advocacy, and Autistic Pride, 1943-2010 Pamela Block Fatima Goncalves Cavalcante 77

5 Negotiating Disability: Mobilization and Organization among Landmine Survivors in Late Twentieth-Century Northern Uganda Herbert Muyinda 98

Part 2 Cultural Histories

Part introduction and guiding questions 117

6 Disability Things: Material Culture and American Disability History, 1700-2010 Katherine Ott 119

7 The Contergan Scandal: Media, Medicine, and Thalidomide in 1960s West Germany Elsbetli Bösl 136

8 "Lest We Forget": Disabled Veterans and the Politics of War Remembrance in the United States John M. Kinder 163

Part 3 Bodies, Medicine, and Contested Knowledge

Part introduction and guiding questions 183

9 Smallpox, Disability, and Survival in Nineteenth-Century France: Rewriting Paradigms from a New Epidemic Script Catherine Kudlick 185

10 "Unfit for Ordinary Purposes": Disability, Slaves, and Decision Making in the Antebellum American South Dea H. Boster 201

11 Rehabilitation Staged: How Soviet Doctors "Cured" Disability in the Second World War Frances L. Bernstein 218

12 The Curious Case of the "Professional Hemophiliac": Medicine, Disability, and the Contested Value of Normality in the United States, 1940-2010 Stephen Pemberton 237

13 Border Disorders: Mental Illness, Feminist Metaphor, and the Disordered Female Psyche in the Twentieth-Century United States Susan K. Cahn 258

Part 4 Citizenship and Belonging

Part introduction and guiding questions 283

14 The Paradox of Social Progress: The Deaf Cultural Community in France and the Ideals of the Third Republic at the Turn of the Twentieth Century Anne Quartararo 285

15 Property, Disability, and the Making of the Incompetent Citizen in the United States, 1860s-1940s Kim E. Nielsen 308

16 "Salvaging the Negro": Race, Rehabilitation, and the Body Politic in World War I America, 1917-1924 Paid R. D. Lawrie 321

17 Engendering and Regendering Disability: Gender and Disability Activism in Postwar America Audra Jennings 345

18 Self-Advocacy and Blind Activists: The Origins of the Disability Rights Movement in Twentieth-Century India Jagdish Chander 364

About the Contributors 381

Index 385

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