Book Review: A Disability History of the United States

twitterlogoBRReview by Heather E. Holcombe.

Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2012) is the second title in the ReVisioning American History series offered by Beacon Press. Building on her work as a scholar and biographer of Helen Keller, Nielsen recasts disability not as a peripheral movement or experience, but rather as central to the events and ideologies that inform national identity. Driving this concise and approachable recounting of American history is a fundamental tension between the stigma of disability as a condition of dependence and the defining creed of American exceptionalism, with its investment in autonomy and self-reliance as markers of national belonging. Or  to be more precise, Nielsen traces the development of this tension, documenting evolving concepts of disability as she moves from pre-colonial North America through the Civil and World Wars to industrialization and modern disability rights activism. 17262462

An able body, like a disabled one, can come in many forms, and belonging to one group or the other is largely a matter of time, place, and perspective. Nielsen reports that Huron Indians reacted with “disgust” to the bearded men who arrived from Europe, regarding their facial hair as a physical deformity that indicated low intelligence (13). From the stance of the colonial project, “the primary definition of disability was an inability to perform labor” (20). Given the general difficulties of life in the seventeenth century, bodily variation itself was neither uncommon nor a defining trait of disability. Yet the nature of the work to be done determined what kinds of physicality might qualify an individual to cross the Atlantic: the English commitment to settlement meant that women joined the ranks of the colonial able-bodied. This standing held true with regard to their capacity to rear children and perform domestic work; yet their perceived mental deficiencies earned them a place alongside “Children, Idiots, [and] Distracted persons” when it came to legal standing, a status that would both earn them special protections and deny them civic standing (21).

Sex and gender, that is, served as a their own categories of disability—as did race. In an ideological tap dance that required negating the manifest physical capacity of the laboring slave, African Americans were classified as “fundamentally inferior specimens with deformed bodies and minds who were best confined to slavery” (50). Nielsen explores the perversity of assertions that, for African Americans, “freedom led to insanity,” or that education could serve only as a degenerative influence on the fragile bodies and minds of white women (91). In the life of the young nation, “disability, as a concept, was used to justify legally established inequalities” (50).

Among the forms of disenfranchisement Nielsen presents is the rise of brutal practices of institutionalization after the Civil War and through the Progressive era, which also saw the legal advent of forced sterilization. These efforts—like the “ugly laws” adopted in Chicago and San Francisco to prevent “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed” from occupying public space—reflected the complicated interplay of attitudes toward race, class, gender, and sexuality that made some individuals more likely to be perceived as disabled than others (89). They also mark a shift in social mandate: contrary to policies in earlier periods, “people with disabilities were to be made invisible” (89).

The documentation of this shift, and the modes of resistance it inspired, is a critical element of the narrative Nielsen offers, which, while necessarily tending to the questions of politics and power linked to definitions and experiences of disability, is far from presenting a monolithic history of exploitation and disempowerment. Her attentive account of deaf culture chronicles American Sign Language as a practice of subversion and resistance in the face of assumptions about the superiority of spoken language. Likewise, schools for the deaf and blind, as well as polio rehabilitation centers, afforded opportunities for companionship and community. Cross contact between individuals with disabilities fueled, by the middle of the twentieth century, organized efforts to assert the full humanity of those whose with variant physicality, psychology, or cognition.

These efforts involved a requisite amount of whistle blowing about standards of care, one of which was undertaken by the thousands of conscientious objectors to World War II who worked as attendants in state mental facilities. They also involved fascinating coalitions between disability activists and union leaders, who witnessed both the capacities of disabled workers and the injurious nature of factory labor. Arising out of the War were arguments not only that disabled individuals could work, but also that they had the right to do so. Late-century advocacy accordingly focused not on rehabilitating the disabled, but on rehabilitating the spaces and attitudes that impeded full participation in the public sphere. In the words of poet Eli Clare, activists offered “bold, brash stories about reclaiming our bodies and changing the world” to fit them (182). Landmark legislation like the Architectural Barriers Act (1968), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1975), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) are clear markers of progress to erode ableist mentalities—a progress imperiled in the twenty-first century as access to education and healthcare is renegotiated. Clare’s call to action remains relevant, and Nielsen’s study is perhaps more timely in 2017 than upon its initial publication.

This slim volume presents a rich introduction to stories of American disability and their centrality to our collective civic life. It is a deft, workable, and cohesive overview that will serve readers of general interest as well as scholars and students seeking a compelling introduction to disability studies.

Heather E. Holcombe teaches English at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her scholarship focuses on issues of gender, science, and reproduction in American literature. Her current book project, Made in America: Fictions of Genetic Industry, explores the simultaneous rise of mass production and genetic science as depicted in contemporary fiction. She is also in the early stages of a project that explores the history of Down syndrome in the United States from personal, cultural, and critical perspectives.

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