A people's history of disability

Scott McLemee delves into a book that surveys the history of disability--from before 1492 to the present day--in a review written for his column in Inside Higher Ed.

Protesters with ADAPT demand funding for Medicaid outside the White House in 2010Protesters with ADAPT demand funding for Medicaid outside the White House in 2010

THERE'S A mean streak at the heart of a certain kind of American optimism--a rugged, go-it-alone, dog-eat-dog strain of individualism that is callous at best, shading into the sociopathic.

It values independence, or says it does, but only by regarding dependency as a totally abject condition. The reality that illness or old age threw even the hardiest pioneer into reliance on others hardly factors into this worldview; the notion that civilization implies interdependence is, for it, almost literally unthinkable.

As I say, this outlook can manifest itself as optimism (the future is one of unbounded possibility, etc.) not always distinct from wishful thinking or denial. And it's just as likely to pour out in resentment that is keen, if not particularly consistent. "I am a victim," the logic goes, "of all those people out there playing victim." Absent a frontier, the frontier spirit starts wallowing in self-pity.

The absence of pity of any sort from Kim E. Nielsen's new book A Disability History of the United States, published by Beacon Press, is hardly the most provocative thing about it. Nielsen, a professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo, indicates that it is the first book "to create a wide-ranging chronological American history narrative told through the lives of people with disabilities."

By displacing the able-bodied, self-subsisting individual citizen as the basic unit (and implied beneficiary) of the American experience, she compels the reader to reconsider how we understand personal dignity, public life and the common good.

Review: BOOKS

Kim E. Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States. Beacon Press, 2012, 272 pages, $26.95.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

TAKE THE "ugly laws," for instance. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, major American cities made it illegal for (in the words of the San Francisco ordinance from 1867) "any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object" to appear in "streets, highways, thoroughfares or public places."

The laws were unequally enforced, with poor and indigent people with handicaps being the main targets. For one thing, the impact of the Civil War plus the incredible frequency of industrial accidents meant there were more unsightly beggars than ever. But while deformed and damaged bodies were being cleared from the streets, there was a pronounced public appetite for the exhibits at "freak" shows.

Now, the two phenomena in question have been studied in some depth over the years. A monograph on the ugly laws appeared not that long ago--and while there have been more detailed studies of the world of "human oddities" than the late Leslie Fiedler's cultural history Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978), I doubt many have been nearly as thought-provoking.

Nielsen's historical narrative is presumably meant for undergraduates and the general public, so it's natural to lose nuance in the treatment of either topic. But the breadth of the survey also means there is a gain in perspective.

No direct link exists between the policing of disabled bodies and their exploitation as entertainment, yet there is a connection even so. "In contestations over who was fit to be present in the civic world and who was not," Nielsen says, "people with disabilities often found themselves increasingly regulated. Those not considered fit for public life were variably shut away, gawked at, [or] exoticized."

It was a far cry from the norm of a century earlier. "The general lack of discussion and institutional acknowledgement of physical disabilities" in 17th- and 18th-century America "suggests that they simply were not noteworthy among communities of European colonists in the period before the Revolution," Nielsen writes. "Indeed, it suggests that such bodily variations were relatively routine and expected--and accommodations were made, or simply didn't have to be made, to integrate individuals into community labor patterns."

Over time, in other words, disability became abnormal. Or at least it quit seeming "normal" in the way that it once did: a hard fact of life, to be sure, but just in the nature of things. Consider the way severely wounded veterans of the Revolutionary War reintegrated into the life of the new Republic.

Citing recent historical work, Nielsen indicates that they "labored, married, had children, and had households typical in size and structures, at rates nearly identical to their nondisabled counterparts." They "worked at the same types of jobs, in roughly the same proportions" as well, and as a group they experienced poverty at the same rates as others of their background. The wounded returning from later wars had a much harder time of it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

NOT ALL handicaps are created equal, of course. Nor is it self-evident that they should be lumped together (war wounds and birth defects, blindness and retardation, mental illness and dwarfism) under the common heading of "disability." Nielsen sketches the changing ways political and medical authorities responded to the afflicted--by trying to help them, or hide them, or both.

In any case, the trend was to define them not by what they could do, but by their handicap. At the same time, attitudes towards the disabled were becoming tangled together with other prejudices. If certain people weren't allowed to vote or otherwise exercise much power, it was only because their race, gender or foreign origin left them physically or mentally unfit for it. Stigma and inequality fed off one another.

The very idea of being profoundly, inescapably limited in some way makes for anxiety when the cultural norm is the expectation "to create successful and powerful selves" that are ready to "stand on our own two feet" and "speak for ourselves." Nielsen points out that the last two figures of speech are part of the problem. There are people who literally can't "stand on their own two feet" or "speak for themselves."

While my exposure to the kinds of disability activists Nielsen writes about in the final pages of her history has been limited, they do seem to have an ironic and sarcastic (rather than po-facedly indignant) response to such "able-ist" imagery--regarding it less as an insult than as evidence that the speaker is a bit thick. Which is usually true. The "unchallenged," as we might be called euphemistically, tend to be somewhat lacking in imagination and insight about their struggle for greater equality and autonomy.

And yet they have won some battles--by demanding help. By demanding a redistribution of resources on the basis of their intrinsic right, as human beings, to the dignity they could not enjoy otherwise.

Someone in a wheelchair can zip around the neighborhood just fine, getting to her job at the pharmacy on time, provided the curbs are made accessible. And no, the person in the wheelchair is not responsible for paying for that, any more than her customers are responsible for mixing their own medications. Interdependence is not a failure of independence; it is the condition for enjoying the sort of independence that means anything at all.

First published by Inside Higher Ed.