No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1850-1930

No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1850-1930

No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1850-1930

No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1850-1930


During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Americans with all sorts of disabilities came to be labeled as "unproductive citizens." Before that, disabled people had contributed as they were able in homes, on farms, and in the wage labor market, reflecting the fact that Americans had long viewed productivity as a spectrum that varied by age, gender, and ability. But as Sarah F. Rose explains in No Right to Be Idle, a perfect storm of public policies, shifting family structures, and economic changes effectively barred workers with disabilities from mainstream workplaces and simultaneously cast disabled people as morally questionable dependents in need of permanent rehabilitation to achieve "self-care" and "self-support."

By tracing the experiences of policymakers, employers, reformers, and disabled people caught up in this epochal transition, Rose masterfully integrates disability history and labor history. She shows how people with disabilities lost access to paid work and the status of "worker--a shift that relegated them and their families to poverty and second-class economic and social citizenship. This has vast consequences for debates about disability, work, poverty, and welfare in the century to come.


In the 1870s, Lily Westbrooke was an unassuming, ordinary resident of the New York State Asylum for Idiots. An “industrious and faithful worker,” she spent her days laboring in the institution’s laundry, where she had “assume[d] the responsibility of looking after a great deal of the children’s clothing.” An affectionate woman who loved taking charge of younger pupils, Westbrooke had come far since arriving at the asylum from a “pauper” family in 1858 as a bashful nine-year-old who understood only simple language and was unaware that “printed words stood for objects of any kinds.” Now a “great talker” and an avid reader, she showed no signs of the obstinacy, violent temper, and reputed “moral deficiency” that Madison County Poorhouse officials claimed had led them to send her to the Asylum for Idiots in the first place.

But Westbrooke’s ability as a worker counted for little when the superintendent, James C. Carson, discharged her in 1888 to her mother. Within less than a year, she once again entered the Madison County Poorhouse, this time for good. Presumably, her mother had died, remarried, or become unwilling or unable to house her. Without relatives who were willing and able to either help her find a paid position as a laundress or make use of her skills themselves, Westbrooke had no options other than following in her parents’ footsteps by becoming a county pauper. Labeled by poor-law officials as a “cripple & idiotic” with “no hope” for recovery, she remained at the poorhouse until her death sometime in the 1920s. Since the poorhouse keeper noted that she could do simple housework, she may have performed unpaid care work at the almshouse, as she had at the Asylum for Idiots.

At roughly the same time as Westbrooke died in the Madison County Poorhouse, Philadelphia resident Walter Pratt, who had lost an eye to a flying piece of steel, was likewise struggling to find a way to subsist off his labors. Despite wearing a natural-looking glass eye, he could not convince an employer to hire him for even the most menial job. in 1928, he complained to an investigator from the Consumers’ League of Eastern Pennsylvania: “You know nowadays you have to pass a physical examination and I would get along fine until they would test my eyes, one at a time, and then it was all off.” After being rejected for yet another janitorial position, he exclaimed, “Well the fact that I have only one eye doesn’t affect my hands and feet, I can do this . . .

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