- A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen
“Groundbreaking” is not typically a term used to describe a short and primarily synthetic work designed with university classrooms in mind. A Disability History of the United States, however, legitimately earns the descriptor, achieving what the author Kim Nielsen calls a “radical repositioning” of U.S. history (xi).
Nielsen, author of important works on Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy, indicates that she seeks “to use disability to help us better understand the history of the United States” (xvii). The chronologically organized book effectively uses disability as a tool of historical analysis on a par with the more commonly cited race, class, and gender (all of which figure prominently in this text as well). The brief opening chapter on the pre-Columbian indigenous population, drawing on the somewhat thin anthropological and archaeological scholarship, nevertheless effectively illustrates the fact that disability was and is a cultural construct. This chapter thus sets the stage for exploring the “concept of disability” as it evolved over time in what became the United States (xii).
Subsequent chapters follow the standard periodization of American history. Chapters 2 and 3 cover the colonial era and show the emergence of community responses to the problem of disability, which was defined primarily in terms of the capacity for self-support. Chapter 4 examines the early national and antebellum eras and demonstrates how the ability to perform the duties of citizenship was added to economic productivity in constructing concepts of disability. It was in the antebellum period that reformers first began to define disability as a significant social problem requiring an institutional response; Chapter 5 continues to trace the “institutionalization of disability,” including the response to disability resulting from the Civil War (78). Chapter 6 focuses on the Progressive Era and reflects the attention that scholars have given both to eugenics and to industrialization as a source of disability. Chapters 7 and 8 develop the theme of activism, highlighting the role of people with disabilities in constructing contemporary meanings of disability. The book culminates with an exploration of the movement for disability rights in latter third of the twentieth century, again linking disability with concepts of citizenship.
One of Nielsen’s objectives was to place “the experiences of people with disabilities at the center of the American story” (xi). She accomplishes this [End Page 341] primarily by highlighting the experiential aspect of the historical literature, as with her treatment of polio (138–142). She also supplements other historians’ accounts by introducing the experiences of individuals from primary sources, an example being her discussion of the mental illness of “revolutionary thinker and hero James Otis, Jr.” (33–34). In the final chapter, her section on the United Handicapped Federation of Minneapolis is based on her own considerable primary source research (172–179).
Primarily a synthetic work, this book reflects the “state of the art” in the field of American disability history. For that reason, it is regrettable that it does not include a bibliography, leaving it to the reader to construct his/her own from the footnotes. Those footnotes show that the bulk of U.S. disability history scholarship has focused on the twentieth century. A particular strength of the book, and of the field, is its attention to the history of psychiatric disability. Another notable strength is the history of the evolution of disability rights activism from the 1920s to the end of the century.
In her introduction, Nielsen says that the book “poses more questions than answers” and that she hopes it will “galvanize much needed additional scholarship” (xviii). This reader hopes that students and scholars alike will be inspired to give more attention to the colonial era and nineteenth century and to further explore the relationships between concepts of citizenship and concepts of disability. In addition, children are virtually absent from the American historical literature on disability, and thus are absent from Nielsen’s book. Thematically, the medicalization of disability needs more careful study. Disability studies scholars and...