A Disability History of the United States

BOOK: A Disability History of the United States
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Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller

The Radical Lives of Helen Keller

Helen Keller: Selected Writings

Un-American Womanhood: Antiradicalism, Antifeminism, and the First Red Scare


A Queer History of the United States
by Michael Bronski


in celebration of twenty-five marvelous, joyful, sometimes bittersweet, event-filled, unforeseen years. And to Morgan and Maya: two of the stunning events.


If there was a country called disabled,

I would be from there.

I live disabled culture, eat disabled food,

make disabled love, cry disabled tears,

climb disabled mountains and tell disabled stories.

If there was a country called disabled,

I would say she has immigrants that come to her

From as far back as time remembers.

If there was a country called disabled,

Then I am one of its citizens.

I came there at age 8. I tried to leave.

Was encouraged by doctors to leave.

I tried to surgically remove myself from disabled country

but found myself, in the end, staying and living there.

If there was a country called disabled,

I would always have to remind myself that I came from there.

I often want to forget.

I would have to remember . . . to remember.

In my life’s journey

I am making myself

At home in my country.




The spirit chooses the body it will occupy:
Indigenous North America, Pre-1492

The poor, vicious, and infirm:
Colonial Communities, 1492–1700

The miserable wretches were then thrown into the sea:
The Late Colonial Era, 1700–1776

The deviant and the dependent:
Creating Citizens, 1776–1865

I am disabled, and must go at something else besides hard labor:
The Institutionalization of Disability, 1865–1890

Three generations of imbeciles are enough:
The Progressive Era, 1890–1927

We don’t want tin cups:
Laying the Groundwork, 1927–1968

I guess I’m an activist. I think it’s just caring:
Rights and Rights Denied, 1968–






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
“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
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
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.”
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 sometimes 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.

BOOK: A Disability History of the United States
5.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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