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  • No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s–1930s by Sarah F. Rose
  • Laurel Daen
No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s–1930s
Sarah F. Rose
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017
398 pp., $95.00 (cloth); $39.95 (paper)

Nearly thirty years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, 65 percent of Americans with physical and intellectual disabilities are unemployed and more than 20 percent live in poverty. According to a 2016 report by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Disability Statistics and Demographics, when disabled people do find work, they earn about two-thirds what people without disabilities earn. Disabled Americans also face intense workplace discrimination. Cases of disability-related violations to fair employment practices have risen steadily since 1990, with more than twenty-eight thousand incidents reported to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016.

In No Right to Be Idle, Sarah F. Rose investigates the roots of disabled people’s marginalization in and exclusion from the paid labor market. She argues that a significant transformation occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While in preceding periods physical and cognitive impairments were not necessarily impediments to productive work, at the turn of the twentieth century disability increasingly became linked with personal immorality and economic dependency, and many disabled people found themselves barred from paid labor and economic citizenship. Rose’s findings have important implications not only for the histories of labor and disability but also for questions about what counts as work and who counts as a worker in American history.

Rose advances three reasons that disabled people were pushed out of the paid labor force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First, she claims that the rise of industrial capitalism and a wage-labor economy reduced families’ capacity to care for disabled relatives at home and to make use of their partial ability to work. Drawing on records from the New York State Asylum for Idiots, Rose shows how mid-nineteenth-century families routinely welcomed institutionalized relations back into their homes but late nineteenth-century families struggled to do the same. Not only did the structure of wage work prevent families from tending to disabled kin during the day, but the rural focus of asylum training programs rendered disabled people’s skills incongruent with urban life. Rose cites these shifts as reasons that asylums became increasingly custodial during the period—a development that historians of disability have often explored but only partially explained. She also documents the extensive labor, from laundering to caretaking, that inmates performed for these institutions at little or no pay.

Second, Rose suggests that disabled people were excluded from paid labor because the mechanization of the workplace led employers to prefer employees with intact and able bodies—“workers who, like the items they produced, could be used as interchangeable parts” (122). During the early twentieth century, some companies imposed medical and age qualifications to justify laying off impaired laborers; others [End Page 141] rejected disabled applicants outright because their bodies seemed incapable of vigor and efficiency. Rose discusses one exception to this rule: the Ford Motor Company. Drawing on Henry Ford’s writings and business records, she reveals how he took the notion of mechanized, subdivided labor to its logical extreme and declared that physical impairments were immaterial as long as employees’ duties were matched with their skills. Ford’s belief led him to employ large numbers of disabled workers; in 1911, people with impairments made up more than 20 percent of the company’s workforce. Ford’s logic, however, failed to infiltrate the business community at large.

Finally, Rose argues that the enactment of workers’ compensation legislation, beginning in 1911, had unexpected and ultimately perverse consequences for disabled people. Fearing the costs of compensation packages, employers actually became less likely to hire those with impairments. Compensation rates were structured so that employees received more money for more serious afflictions. A second injury to a laborer with an existing infirmity, then, cost companies far more than a first injury to an able-bodied employee. Employers consequently began to screen out disabled people, claiming...


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pp. 141-142
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