January 31st, 2013

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Author Writes New Chapter With “A Disability History of the United States”


Beacon Press’ teaser copy for Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States makes clear the author’s ambition for the new book to be a “radical repositioning of U.S. History.” If the excerpt found in the latest edition of the Utne Reader is any indication, Nielsen’s endeavor is a rousing success.

The excerpt is actually Nielsen’s entire Introduction for A Disability History of the United States. She describes changes in her own mindset about how to approach telling the story of people with disabilities with the revelation that what individuals “cannot do” has always been a defining characteristic of discrimination in our country.

From pre-colonial times to the present, an individual’s race, gender, sexuality, class, and education level have been used as an offset to the mythical “self-made” American — a citizen whose accomplishments were made independently of any outside aid or support. Nielsen points to two phrases commonly considered indicative of the traits valued in America — “stand on our own two feet” and “speak up for ourselves” — and, rightfully, labels them as “ableist.” She explains:

When disability is equated with dependency, disability is stigmatized. Citizens with disabilities are labeled inferior citizens… In real life, however, just as in a real democracy, all of us are dependent on others. All of us contribute to and benefit from the care of others — as taxpayers, as recipients of public education, as the children of parents, as those who use public roads or transportation, as beneficiaries of publicly funded medical research, as those who do not participate in wage work during varying life stages, and on and on… Dependency is not bad — indeed, it is at the heart of both the human and the American experience. It is what makes a community and a democracy.

Nielsen is a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She seems to have come to the subject of people with disabilities through her research into the life of Hellen Keller. Her 2009 book, The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (NYU Press), moves Keller’s legend away from the cloying accounts of a blind and deaf little girl learning to connect with the world to what Keller has accomplished as an adult dedicated to advocating for the rights of women and individuals with disabilities.

Nielsen’s goal with A Disability History of the United States serves a similar goal of moving the topic from “soft” accounts of people overcoming their disability to how disability has been defined and redefined over time periods and how that has impacted employment, law, community, and national identity. By doing so, she makes the history of these individuals one and the same with the history of America.

How do you think the perception of disabilities has changed over the course of history? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image by Larry & Teddy Page.

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