- Response:How Do Early Americans with Disabilities Act?
What is disability? Is it a condition that attaches to a body or a mind, or to a social role or legal category? This question lies at the heart of the field of disability studies as it has emerged in the last thirty years, and it is central to the five essays contained in this special issue as well. In their introduction, Sari Altschuler and Cristobal Silva observe that “the concept of disability was inchoate in early America” (6), and this inchoateness presents both a challenge and an opportunity for scholars of disability in early America. All five of these essays, along with the editors’ introduction, demonstrate the rich and compelling scholarship that can emerge when the analytic frame of disability studies is brought to early American texts, both works by well-known authors like Cotton Mather and Anne Hutchinson and archival rarities such as Pomp’s broadside and the Boehm/Miller documents.
As a disability studies scholar whose work focuses on nineteenth-century through present-day American culture, I was delighted and humbled by how much I learned from reading the work in this special issue. I also found myself revisiting this central question of how to define and trace disability’s meaning across the past few centuries. Many scholars of disability history and literature, myself included, have argued for a radical shift in the definition and enforcement of disability categories in the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of residential institutions, state welfare programs, medical professionalization, and the concept of normalcy (Davis; Snyder and Mitchell; Samuels). One crucial contribution of the essays in this special issue is the challenge they pose to that time line, particularly with regard to the medical certification and bureaucratization of disability, which they show emerging as early as the 1702 example cited by Nicholas Junkerman (58). But perhaps even more important is how this work encourages us to realize that there is less of a “before and after” to the modern, institutionalized definition of disability than an ongoing tension [End Page 169] between efforts to codify disability’s meaning and the resistance posed by the messiness of impairment, as lived and represented through bodies, minds, and texts.
One way to think about this tension is through language itself. Altschuler and Silva observe that “the idea of disability—that is, a set of stigmatized physical and cognitive impairments around which certain exclusionary practices are organized—was likewise at work in early America but disability was not yet the singular word used to describe it” (2). Instead we find early Americans speaking of “impotence” and “incapacity” (LaFleur), “lameness and decrepitude” (Daen 146), “fits” of “hysterical aspect” (Junkerman 72), “prodigious birth[s]” (Field 40), and “lunacy” (Stone), among many other descriptors that populate the impairment- and illness-prone world of early America. Each of the authors in this collection thoughtfully considers what it means to apply the term disability to the subjects of his or her scholarship and whether it is even possible to fit early American subjects into the field of disability studies as it currently exists, or if such a move requires rethinking some of the base assumptions of the field itself. To paraphrase Junkerman, the use of disability theory for studying early America and of early America for studying disability theory “may,” in his words, “require useful and surprising adjustments on both sides” (57).
To this compelling conversation, I will add the observation that, while the use of the term disability to refer to physical or mental impairment became increasingly common from the nineteenth century into the present, this process has been neither linear nor continuous, but is forever disrupted and crucially contingent not only on a speaker using the word but on the listener being willing to hear it. To cite one example from my own work, in Mark Twain’s canonical 1894 novella Puddn’head Wilson, the minor character of Roxy is an enslaved woman who, like many enslaved people in American history, became unable to work due to the harshness of her labor conditions. Twain refers to this impairment several times, describing Roxy as having “rheumatism in her arms...