Friday, April 25, 2014

Seeing Disability in U.S. History


Despite its exciting growth over the past couple of decades, disability history still gets relatively little little space in U.S. history textbooks.  This is a shame, in part because the work on disability reveals so much not just about the lives of the disabled, but also about the evolving politics and meaning of “normalcy” in American life.  Of course, if the challenge is to weave in yet another thread into the already knotty tapestry of the survey, images can do a great deal of the work.  This week I’d like to pluck a few images out of the fabulous collections of the Disability History Museum that might be easily incorporated into lectures on broader topics such as material and visual culture, gender, and civil rights.  The images below largely relate to physical disability, but the collection is a rich resource for understanding other forms of disability as well. 

This image offers students a glimpse of the rich consumer culture that emerged around disability in the 19th century, when notions of comfort and widening availability of goods helped put devices such as the one pictured into the hands of the public.  This image might be used to discuss the connection between disability and invalidism, as well as examine how both literature and medical expertise (the rest-cure) reinforced 19th-century associations between feminity and physical weakness.


P.T. Barnum’s famous Feejee Mermaid, consisting of a monkey sewn to a fish, might appear at first to have little connection to disability.  Nevertheless, the growth of commercial spectacle and the popular desire of antebellum Americans to see oddities helped establish the terms on which many forms of disability were made visible.  This image might be woven into a discussion of urbanization and its visual desires, and connected to later Barnum and world’s fair exhibitions such as the Hottentot Venus that displayed and exploited “abnormal” bodies.

Established in Boston in 1829, the Perkins School was and remains at the forefront of education for the blind in the United States.  It also helped transform popular assumptions about the capacity of the blind for economic self-sufficiency.  Yet this 1889 image also suggest the gendered limits of that transformation: the piano tuners shown here are all male, even though the school educated a number of its female students in the musical arts.  The image also demonstrates a young boy at work, and thus offers a useful segue into an emerging cause of Progressive reformers: child labor.

Popular depictions of the role of Americans of color (including over 10,000 native Americans) in WWI in popular culture are woefully rare.  This 1918 photograph of injured Native American soldiers recuperating at a field hospital may surprise students, and raises interesting questions about the way in which some forms of disability have both reinforced and challenged racial inequality. 


Tom Olin’s striking photograph documented the disability rights movement at a protest leading to the passage of one of its most significant victories, the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990).  The movement and the act goes beyond disability, demonstrating the Americans’ new ideas about the role of the government in the wake of the civil rights movement. 

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