many source materials for disability history, labor historiography rarely
recognizes the experience and perception of disability in laborers’ lives or in
working-class subcultures. Various
essays in a new book, The New Disability History: American Perspectives,
edited by Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky, try to fill the historiographical gaps. The essays show us that disability has a
place in various parts of our history.
While there is an enormous diversity of disability, the collection of
essays reminds us of how comparable social perils recur across various
disability groups and throughout their particular histories. This book is of interest to disability
activists, disability studies scholars, philosophers, bioethicists, political
scientists, historians, and scholars interested in intersectionality.
fourteen essays in the collection explore themes that run from the early
nineteenth century to the present. They
seek to open up a history that has largely been hidden or ignored and to
suggest new ways to think about disability and the American experience. These essays examine how the category of
disability has been used as one of the most prevalent justifications for
inequality and how the American society has tried to neglect people with
disability, perhaps due to the “existential anxiety,” as Longmore and Umansky
put it. Many people without
disabilities want to avoid contact with those who live with various
disabilities. As Rosemarie Garland
Thomson discusses in her article, “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of
Disability in Popular Photography,” the development of photography in the
twentieth century allowed viewers with an immediate yet distanced way to
contemplate the disabled body without actually having to be exposed to visibly
existential anxiety may also have contributed to various attempts to get rid of
people with disabilities, to segregate them, to treat them paternalistically,
to pity them, or to “normalize” them.
Janice Brockley’s article, “Martyred Mothers and Merciful Fathers:
Exploring Disability and Motherhood in the Lives of Jerome Greenfield and
Raymond Repouille,” offers a look at how disability-related killings have been
tolerated or even socially approved.
The ideas that a life with disability is not worth living and that
family members of people with disabilities are the real overburdened victims
continue to affect our social attitude towards people with disabilities and
euthanasia. These ideas and attitudes
in turn affect our social policies regarding discrimination, hate crimes, and
when the issue is not a matter of death, people with disabilities have often
been treated as outcasts. Douglas
Baynton’s article, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American
History,” discusses how the idea of normality led to the belief that being
different from normal was equivalent to being subnormal or defective. Baynton offers very helpful and insightful
observations of how various minority racial groups and women have been
associated with disability. These
population groups have been regarded as less evolved than white men and as a
result their lower social and political positions were deemed justified.
ideas of segregation and inferiority also relate to the fact that many ignore
the competency and autonomy of people with disabilities. As Hannah Joyner’s discusses in the essay,
“‘This Unnatural and Fratricidal Strife’: A Family’s Negotiation of the Civil
War, Deafness, and Independence,” people with disabilities often have to
struggle against the role of dependency and to fight to gain their family’s acceptance
of their independence and autonomy. In
the public realm, the question of whether professionals’ or experts’ voices
should outweigh those of people who are disabled also highlights the question
of autonomy, as illustrated in Catherine Kudlick’s article, “The Outlook of The
Problem and the Problem with the Outlook: Two Advocacy Journals
Reinvent Blind People in Turn-of-the-Century America.” This essay outlines the issue of how
professionals who presumably were advocating for people with disabilities, such
as those in charge of the Outlook, often claimed authority and suggested
or assumed the latter’s dependence.
respond to the problem of unequal social status and perceived incompetence,
some have argued that people with disabilities should be mainstreamed or
normalized. R. A. R. Edwards’ essay,
“‘Speech Has an Extraordinary Humanizing Power’: Horace Mann and the Problem of
Nineteenth-Century American Deaf Education,” explores how the prominent
educator of his day considered language training as the essential part of any
child’s education. Mann thought that
all people, including those who could not hear, should have a common mode of
expression and should not be taught in separate schools.
while Mann did have many supporters, many Deaf people fought the oralist
movement. As Susan Burch discusses in
“Reading between the Signs: Defending Deaf Culture in Early Twentieth-Century
America,” the Deaf community resisted the oralists’ efforts to normalize
Deaf people and to eliminate Deaf culture.
Their persistent fight eventually gained some support with the new
child-centered pedagogical approach that recognizes the importance of
accommodating students rather than having students accommodating the
many have argued against the idea of normalizing people with disabilities, they
believe that people with disabilities should have equal rights to participate
in civic engagement and economic production.
They realize that such activities can help reduce dependence and promote
citizenship. In “A Pupil and a Patient:
Hospital-Schools in Progressive America,” Brad Byrom offers a look at how
various vocational training programs for people with disabilities have promoted
job opportunities for these people and helped the society to regard these
people for their capabilities rather than their disabilities.
aspect that I found most helpful in this collection of essays is the discussion
of intersectionality. Some disability
writers ignore the fact that the experience of people with disabilities is
often influenced by other factors, such as race, gender, social class, and so
on. Various authors in this volume discuss how these other factors often
contribute to the experience and expectations of people with disabilities. Natalie Dykstra’s article, “‘Trying to
Idle’: Work and Disability in The Diary of Alice James,” shows how
expectations of white, middle-class women limited the support for Alice James’
considerable abilities. Interestingly,
release and resolution were available to her famous brothers William and Henry,
both of whom were also diagnosed with neurotic and physical ailments. However, immobility and gender expectations
eventually allowed Alice the opportunity to utilize the sickroom and to display
her proficiency and skill in her diary.
Williams-Searle’s article, “Cold Charity: Manhood, Brotherhood, and the
Transformation of Disability, 1870-1900,” and K. Walter Hickel’s article,
“Medicine, Bureaucracy, and Social Welfare: The Politics of Disability
Compensation for American Veterans of World War I,” also show how gender
expectations contributed to the experience of disabled men in American
history. The ideas of masculinity and
independence affected how disability and public charity were perceived. These perceptions in turn influenced various
intersectionality among various factors also contributes to the idea of
solidarity for some people with disabilities.
David Gerber’s article, “Blind and Enlightened: The Contested Origins of
the Egalitarian Politics of the Blinded Veterans Association,” shows that the
blind veterans understood the value of solidarity and commitment to one
another’s welfare. These veterans who
became blind with little warning and were forced to face the challenge of their
disability understood the value of rehabilitation and mutual support.
Understanding and perhaps also experiencing the effect of discrimination, these
veterans also took a stand against racism and anti-Semitism.
intersectionality is a complex matter and does not necessarily imply that
people with particular disabilities always share the same experience with those
of other disabilities or members of other marginalized groups. As Kim Nielsen discusses in “Helen Keller
and the Politics of Civic Fitness,” while Keller thought that her experience of
disability gave her a heightened awareness of human struggle in general, the
superstar isolated herself from other people with disabilities and political
groups. She never succeeded in
convincing others that she really shared a political experience of
oppression or unfulfilled citizenship with other marginalized groups.
we begin the new millennium, it is interesting to see how disability policies
as well as government programs regarding benefits and subsidies have evolved in
the last century. As Richard Scotch
discusses in the closing article, “American Disability Policy in the Twentieth
Century,” the evolution of disability policies reflects changing assumptions
about the nature of the problems posed by impairment and government
responsibility. While disability
programs focused on providing pensions for disabled veterans earlier in the
century, they expanded in the latter half of the twentieth century to provide
disabled workers compensation, insurance, and cash benefits. At the same time, the idea that disability
was simply a medical or personal disadvantage has come under attack. The idea that social environment and
discrimination contribute to people’s disadvantage has gained acceptance and
has influenced disability policies.
With the Civil Rights Movement, various laws were enacted in the latter
part of the twentieth century to provide not only benefits and compensations,
but, more importantly, to remove barriers and prohibit discrimination in
employment, public accommodation, and telecommunications. However, since policies are an expression of
the larger culture and social structure, Scotch admits that they alone do not
guarantee social change. Despite
various well-intentioned policies and government programs, people with
disabilities are often still treated as second-class citizens. Many still assume that disability is a
personal medical problem that should best be cured by medical procedures. To eliminate barriers to social, economic,
and political participation, we must therefore attend to the larger task of
reorienting and redefining the disabling and institutionalized aspects of
American culture and political economy.
found most of the essays in this volume informative and enlightening. They show us that disability has a place in
various aspects of the American history.
Some of the articles, however, are a bit chronologically confusing. Within an article, sometimes various
historical facts and events are not dealt with chronologically. These articles would have been more
successful if the events were ordered as they happened in history, thereby
giving readers a clearer sense of the evolution of various events.
was also a bit disappointed and surprised by the fact that this volume on
disability history pays little attention to mental disabilities. Certainly, some of the authors mention
mental disabilities in passing or use the word disability to incorporate both
physical and mental disabilities.
However, most of the articles focus solely on physical disabilities, and
none of the articles is devoted to the issue of mental disability or how the
concept of mental disability has evolved in the American history. As this volume tries to fill some
historiographical gaps, it itself leaves a major gap for others to fill.
© 2003 Anita Ho
Anita Ho is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The
College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota. She specializes in bioethics, disability studies, and