The Wilson Quarterly

In the introduction to their influential 2001 volume The New Disability History, editors Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky rightly noted that American historians have largely overlooked disability in their narratives. It is therefore invigorating to read Kim Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, which focuses attention on people with disabilities, some of whom are known, and many of whom have been forgotten.

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. From the start, the United States, perhaps more than any other nation, has combined the opportunity to work with narratives of individual ambition: The Puritan work ethic and the Horatio Alger story reflect a cultural imagination that has always been preoccupied with myths of individualism and independence. But Nielsen shows that people with disabilities also reflect the progressive idealism of the United States.

The range of this book is marvelous. It extends from the early efforts by New England Puritans to reconcile the existence of physical difference with their understanding of divine order to the organized activism of Civil War veterans who fought for public assistance, and on to the movements that led to enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Along the way, Nielsen explores disability in American indigenous cultures; the stories of slaves with disabilities; the establishment of disability as a social, rhetorical, and legal category in the 19th century; the history of eugenics; the oppression of deaf people who were prevented from using sign language; and compulsory sterilization laws.

Nielsen is particularly convincing in describing the hierarchies of power that have contributed throughout history to the marginalization of disabled people. The “ugly laws” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that forbade people with disabilities or evident deformities to appear on public streets were designed, in part, to hide from general view people who had been injured in industrial accidents or by disease. Even the blind were to be concealed. Today, some U.S. soldiers with prosthetic limbs are even returning to battle, and the South African runner Oscar Pistorius, whose legs are both amputated below the knee, just competed in the London Olympics. These developments would have been almost unimaginable just 70 years ago, when President Franklin Roosevelt went to great lengths to minimize public awareness of the polio-induced paralysis that had left him unable to use his legs.

This tale is one of families, veterans, workers, and elders, which is, of course, why disability is the story of us. Nielsen demonstrates that despite the fact that disability was long a cause for social marginalization, people with disabilities have been protected and supported by America’s representative democracy. The passage of pension and benefit programs for war veterans, disability benefits for miners, and the development of rehabilitation and accommodation strategies guaranteeing access to the public square all tell a story of a democracy that resists the cult of rugged individualism in complicated ways.

What emerges in this volume is a history of several ideas. The first is the definition of disability, which has been the subject of an ongoing and spirited public debate. The second is the evolving understanding of human value and its relationship to labor. Finally, Nielsen asks us to consider democracy as an instrument of progressive self-definition — a view that Walt Whitman would call a “democratic vista” and that has proved particularly important to those who live with physical differences. Another way to say this is that disability has been part of the women’s rights movement, the labor movement, the struggle for racial equality, and the struggle for sexual equality. It is the identity or minority position that claims all others. The history of disability is a history of our national conception of human dignity.

Stephen Kuusisto teaches at the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies at Syracuse University. He is the author of the memoir Planet of the Blind (1997).

Reviewed: A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen. Beacon Press, 240 pp. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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