A Disability History of the United States

Article excerpt

A DISABILITY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

By Kim E. Nielsen

Beacon Press

240 pp. $25.95

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IN THE INTRODUCTION TO THEIR INFLUENTIAL 2001 volume The New Disability History, editors Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky rightly noted that American historians have largely overlooked disability in their narratives. It is therefore invigorating to read Kim Nielsen's A Disability History of the United States, which focuses attention on people with disabilities, some of whom are known, and many of whom have been forgotten.

Nielsen excavates the long-buried history of physical difference in America and shows how disability has been a significant factor in the formation of democratic values. From the start, the United States, perhaps more than any other nation, has combined the opportunity to work with narratives of individual ambition: The Puritan work ethic and the Horatio Alger story reflect a cultural imagination that has always been preoccupied with myths of individualism and independence. But Nielsen shows that people with disabilities also reflect the progressive idealism of the United States.

The range of this book is marvelous. It extends from the early efforts by New England Puritans to reconcile the existence of physical difference with their understanding of divine order to the organized activism of Civil War veterans who fought for public assistance, and on to the movements that led to enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Along the way, Nielsen explores disability in American indigenous cultures; the stories of slaves with disabilities; the establishment of disability as a social, rhetorical, and legal category in the 19th century; the history of eugenics; the oppression of deaf people who were prevented from using sign language; and compulsory sterilization laws.

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Nielsen is particularly convincing in describing the hierarchies of power that have contributed throughout history to the marginalization of disabled people. The "ugly laws" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that forbade people with disabilities or evident deformities to appear on public streets were designed, in part, to hide from general view people who had been injured in industrial accidents or by disease. …