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by Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky (editors)
New York University Press, 2001
Review by Anita Ho, Ph.D. on Jan 4th 2003

The New Disability History

Despite many source materials for disability history, labor historiography rarely recognizes the experience and perception of disability in laborers’ lives or in working-class subcultures.  Various essays in a new book, The New Disability History: American Perspectives, edited by Paul Longmore and Lauri Umansky, try to fill the historiographical gaps.  The essays show us that disability has a place in various parts of our history.  While there is an enormous diversity of disability, the collection of essays reminds us of how comparable social perils recur across various disability groups and throughout their particular histories.  This book is of interest to disability activists, disability studies scholars, philosophers, bioethicists, political scientists, historians, and scholars interested in intersectionality.

The fourteen essays in the collection explore themes that run from the early nineteenth century to the present.  They seek to open up a history that has largely been hidden or ignored and to suggest new ways to think about disability and the American experience.  These essays examine how the category of disability has been used as one of the most prevalent justifications for inequality and how the American society has tried to neglect people with disability, perhaps due to the “existential anxiety,” as Longmore and Umansky put it.  Many people without disabilities want to avoid contact with those who live with various disabilities.  As Rosemarie Garland Thomson discusses in her article, “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography,” the development of photography in the twentieth century allowed viewers with an immediate yet distanced way to contemplate the disabled body without actually having to be exposed to visibly disabled people. 

Such existential anxiety may also have contributed to various attempts to get rid of people with disabilities, to segregate them, to treat them paternalistically, to pity them, or to “normalize” them.  Janice Brockley’s article, “Martyred Mothers and Merciful Fathers: Exploring Disability and Motherhood in the Lives of Jerome Greenfield and Raymond Repouille,” offers a look at how disability-related killings have been tolerated or even socially approved.  The ideas that a life with disability is not worth living and that family members of people with disabilities are the real overburdened victims continue to affect our social attitude towards people with disabilities and euthanasia.  These ideas and attitudes in turn affect our social policies regarding discrimination, hate crimes, and euthanasia. 

Even when the issue is not a matter of death, people with disabilities have often been treated as outcasts.  Douglas Baynton’s article, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” discusses how the idea of normality led to the belief that being different from normal was equivalent to being subnormal or defective.  Baynton offers very helpful and insightful observations of how various minority racial groups and women have been associated with disability.  These population groups have been regarded as less evolved than white men and as a result their lower social and political positions were deemed justified. 

The ideas of segregation and inferiority also relate to the fact that many ignore the competency and autonomy of people with disabilities.  As Hannah Joyner’s discusses in the essay, “‘This Unnatural and Fratricidal Strife’: A Family’s Negotiation of the Civil War, Deafness, and Independence,” people with disabilities often have to struggle against the role of dependency and to fight to gain their family’s acceptance of their independence and autonomy.  In the public realm, the question of whether professionals’ or experts’ voices should outweigh those of people who are disabled also highlights the question of autonomy, as illustrated in Catherine Kudlick’s article, “The Outlook of The Problem and the Problem with the Outlook: Two Advocacy Journals Reinvent Blind People in Turn-of-the-Century America.”  This essay outlines the issue of how professionals who presumably were advocating for people with disabilities, such as those in charge of the Outlook, often claimed authority and suggested or assumed the latter’s dependence.

To respond to the problem of unequal social status and perceived incompetence, some have argued that people with disabilities should be mainstreamed or normalized.  R. A. R. Edwards’ essay, “‘Speech Has an Extraordinary Humanizing Power’: Horace Mann and the Problem of Nineteenth-Century American Deaf Education,” explores how the prominent educator of his day considered language training as the essential part of any child’s education.  Mann thought that all people, including those who could not hear, should have a common mode of expression and should not be taught in separate schools.

However, while Mann did have many supporters, many Deaf people fought the oralist movement.  As Susan Burch discusses in “Reading between the Signs: Defending Deaf Culture in Early Twentieth-Century America,” the Deaf community resisted the oralists’ efforts to normalize Deaf people and to eliminate Deaf culture.  Their persistent fight eventually gained some support with the new child-centered pedagogical approach that recognizes the importance of accommodating students rather than having students accommodating the environment.

While many have argued against the idea of normalizing people with disabilities, they believe that people with disabilities should have equal rights to participate in civic engagement and economic production.  They realize that such activities can help reduce dependence and promote citizenship.  In “A Pupil and a Patient: Hospital-Schools in Progressive America,” Brad Byrom offers a look at how various vocational training programs for people with disabilities have promoted job opportunities for these people and helped the society to regard these people for their capabilities rather than their disabilities.

The aspect that I found most helpful in this collection of essays is the discussion of intersectionality.  Some disability writers ignore the fact that the experience of people with disabilities is often influenced by other factors, such as race, gender, social class, and so on. Various authors in this volume discuss how these other factors often contribute to the experience and expectations of people with disabilities.   Natalie Dykstra’s article, “‘Trying to Idle’: Work and Disability in The Diary of Alice James,” shows how expectations of white, middle-class women limited the support for Alice James’ considerable abilities.  Interestingly, release and resolution were available to her famous brothers William and Henry, both of whom were also diagnosed with neurotic and physical ailments.  However, immobility and gender expectations eventually allowed Alice the opportunity to utilize the sickroom and to display her proficiency and skill in her diary.

John Williams-Searle’s article, “Cold Charity: Manhood, Brotherhood, and the Transformation of Disability, 1870-1900,” and K. Walter Hickel’s article, “Medicine, Bureaucracy, and Social Welfare: The Politics of Disability Compensation for American Veterans of World War I,” also show how gender expectations contributed to the experience of disabled men in American history.  The ideas of masculinity and independence affected how disability and public charity were perceived.  These perceptions in turn influenced various compensation policies.

The intersectionality among various factors also contributes to the idea of solidarity for some people with disabilities.  David Gerber’s article, “Blind and Enlightened: The Contested Origins of the Egalitarian Politics of the Blinded Veterans Association,” shows that the blind veterans understood the value of solidarity and commitment to one another’s welfare.  These veterans who became blind with little warning and were forced to face the challenge of their disability understood the value of rehabilitation and mutual support. Understanding and perhaps also experiencing the effect of discrimination, these veterans also took a stand against racism and anti-Semitism. 

However, intersectionality is a complex matter and does not necessarily imply that people with particular disabilities always share the same experience with those of other disabilities or members of other marginalized groups.  As Kim Nielsen discusses in “Helen Keller and the Politics of Civic Fitness,” while Keller thought that her experience of disability gave her a heightened awareness of human struggle in general, the superstar isolated herself from other people with disabilities and political groups.  She never succeeded in convincing others that she really shared a political experience of oppression or unfulfilled citizenship with other marginalized groups.

As we begin the new millennium, it is interesting to see how disability policies as well as government programs regarding benefits and subsidies have evolved in the last century.  As Richard Scotch discusses in the closing article, “American Disability Policy in the Twentieth Century,” the evolution of disability policies reflects changing assumptions about the nature of the problems posed by impairment and government responsibility.  While disability programs focused on providing pensions for disabled veterans earlier in the century, they expanded in the latter half of the twentieth century to provide disabled workers compensation, insurance, and cash benefits.  At the same time, the idea that disability was simply a medical or personal disadvantage has come under attack.  The idea that social environment and discrimination contribute to people’s disadvantage has gained acceptance and has influenced disability policies.  With the Civil Rights Movement, various laws were enacted in the latter part of the twentieth century to provide not only benefits and compensations, but, more importantly, to remove barriers and prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodation, and telecommunications.  However, since policies are an expression of the larger culture and social structure, Scotch admits that they alone do not guarantee social change.  Despite various well-intentioned policies and government programs, people with disabilities are often still treated as second-class citizens.  Many still assume that disability is a personal medical problem that should best be cured by medical procedures.  To eliminate barriers to social, economic, and political participation, we must therefore attend to the larger task of reorienting and redefining the disabling and institutionalized aspects of American culture and political economy.

I found most of the essays in this volume informative and enlightening.  They show us that disability has a place in various aspects of the American history.  Some of the articles, however, are a bit chronologically confusing.  Within an article, sometimes various historical facts and events are not dealt with chronologically.  These articles would have been more successful if the events were ordered as they happened in history, thereby giving readers a clearer sense of the evolution of various events.

I was also a bit disappointed and surprised by the fact that this volume on disability history pays little attention to mental disabilities.  Certainly, some of the authors mention mental disabilities in passing or use the word disability to incorporate both physical and mental disabilities.  However, most of the articles focus solely on physical disabilities, and none of the articles is devoted to the issue of mental disability or how the concept of mental disability has evolved in the American history.  As this volume tries to fill some historiographical gaps, it itself leaves a major gap for others to fill.


© 2003 Anita Ho


Anita Ho is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She specializes in bioethics, disability studies, and social/political philosophy.


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