Busy Bodies

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

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Posted November 21, 2012 in Arts & Culture

Photo by Morgan Tuff

A Disability History chronicles the history of “deviants” and “undesirables”—before the ADA

“Can’t” is a word you can’t say.

No, you’ve been raised knowing that anything’s possible. Everything’s within reach. Whether you can’t see, can’t hear, can’t walk or can’t go a day without medicine, you’ve always had that can-do attitude that gets you through.

“Can’t” is not possible.

While studying women’s history and politics, though, author Kim E. Nielsen stumbled upon something she can’t ignore: disabilities shaped history in surprising ways. In her new book, A Disability History of the United States, she explains.

Disability, of course, is nothing new.

Humans have been dealing with it since humans began. What’s different is how it’s perceived: the indigenous people of North America, for instance, believed that every person had a gift or skill. Since one’s skill, no matter how insignificant, was perceived as a contribution to the community, disability didn’t mean segregation.

Early European colonists gave little thought to physical disability, perhaps because life was rough and disease was common. Legal protections, however, were made for those considered mentally unable to make good decisions.

That included married women.

But by the 1700s, attitudes changed. Paupers and mentally disabled citizens were often dumped in another town in the dead of night, and regulations were made to prohibit any “undesirable” from stepping on American shores. Women who engaged in “deviant actions” were deemed responsible for their babies’ birth defects; stillbirths could be cause for the mother’s arrest. The poor and the mentally impaired were institutionalized (often against their wills) and abuse was horrifyingly frequent. If you were Black, you were automatically considered to be disabled and in need of enslavement.

Attitudes changed again after the various wars. During the Civil War, when wheelchairs and prosthetics became increasingly necessary, disability was seen as heroic; President Lincoln even established the Invalid Corps, which put disabled veterans to work to free able-bodied men to fight. At about this time, Americans became fascinated with “freaks,” and P.T. Barnum became rich from it.

By the end of World War II, the disabled and their allies began to lobby for better rights and attitudes. Still, it wasn’t until just before the turn of the century that the ADA was passed into law…

In A Disability History of the United States, author Nielsen, shows that while attitudes throughout history have changed the way disability is perceived, disability has also changed history. People have assimilated, rebuffed or ignored disability through the years, depending on changing social mores and rudimentary science.

That’s endlessly fascinating, as are the historical incidents Nielsen found that will touch (or anger) readers. This unique book can be somewhat dry at times, a bit repetitive and not always chronological, but there’s always another story to move the book along. That helps in the enjoyment, because enjoy it I did.

I think you’ll like this book, too, especially if you’re an advocate, a student of history, or just looking for a different angle on American society. For you, A Disability History of the United States is a book you can’t afford to miss.

A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen, Beacon Press, 240 pages. List price: $25.95.


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