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  • Out of the Horrors of War: Disability Politics in World War II America by Audra Jennings
  • Laurel Daen
Out of the Horrors of War: Disability Politics in World War II America
Audra Jennings
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
296 pp., $55.00 (cloth); $55.00 (e-book)

In 1943, Mildred Scott of Dallas, Texas, joined a newly formed organization: the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped (AFPH). The mission of the AFPH—"Justice," "Opportunity," "Unity," and "Equal Rights"—resonated with Scott. Physically disabled by polio as a child, she grew up feeling "different" and experienced vocational discrimination as a young adult (1). Despite being trained as a teacher, Scott found that the state of her birth, Pennsylvania, barred people with visible disabilities from teaching in public schools. On joining the AFPH, Scott met others with similar histories of prejudice and unfair treatment and contributed to efforts to end "discrimination against the employment of otherwise qualified but physically handicapped applicants" (1). She also rose in the ranks of the AFPH, eventually serving as the association's national secretary.

Out of the Horrors of War recounts the stories of people like Scott and the rise, fall, and legacy of the AFPH—the first national cross-disability social-movement organization in the United States. Founded in 1940 by Paul Strachan, the federation encouraged members to look beyond their personal experiences of injustice and recognize broader patterns of disability exclusion. The AFPH also lobbied for government policies that facilitated the full participation of disabled people in civic life. It thus stands as a crucial chapter in the history of the disability rights and civil rights movements as well as the history of labor, public policy, social organization, and medicine during the mid-twentieth century. Jennings is the first scholar to conduct a detailed investigation of the AFPH, its initiatives and inner workings, from its inception until its demise in the 1960s. Drawing on an impressive array of sources and archives (no centralized collection of institutional material exists), the product has much to offer scholars working in these many fields.

One of Jennings's primary interventions is that disability activism can be traced to World War II. Most historians date the genesis of the disability rights movement to the 1970s; specifically, the occupation of a federal building in San Francisco in protest of the nonimplementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in 1977. Following scholars such as Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, who call for a long-term view of the civil rights movement, Jennings argues that disability awareness and organizing emerged earlier in the context of World War II. "The war rendered disability legible . . . in new and powerful ways," she writes (15). Not only did "the desperate need for workers force . . . the federal government to develop and expand policies to bring disabled citizens into the workforce," but disabled people, aware of their contributions to the battlefield and home front, began to make greater demands on the state (15). The AFPH used the politics of wartime to boost membership and convey the urgency of their demands. Improving disabled people's lives [End Page 107] and employment prospects, Strachan often insisted, was "vitally important to the continuance of our Nation" (23).

Jennings also reveals the significance of organized labor to the rise of disability activism. Historians have studied the role of labor in the expansion of the welfare state and the centrality of disability, health, and safety to labor campaigns, but few have probed the direct links between these movements. "The AFL, CIO, UMWA [United Mine Workers of America], IAM [International Association of Machinists], and other unions helped to finance the AFPH," Jennings explains, "and provided it with organizational and legislative support" (9). In many cases, personal relationships facilitated these connections: Strachan worked for multiple unions, including the AFL, before launching the AFPH. But Jennings also notes that the movements found common ground on issues from workplace safety to health care as well as in their memberships. "A great many of these [disabled] folks are members of our organizations," AFL representative Lewis G. Hines reminded listeners at a federal hearing (168). Thus it was only right that "the pressure of the union" be used...


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