I am an avid reader and friends are always telling me about books that I have to read. Last week I was referred to Kim Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States. I am really excited about this book for two reasons: one, because I really enjoy reading about history and two, because the subject matter centers around people with disabilities and how they have been such an important part of shaping history.
It explores the pivotal role people with disabilities played in our nation’s past and are still playing today; their contribution to our laws, policy, economics, popular culture and other things many people take for granted. The book dates from pre-1492 to the present. Kim Nielsen focuses on daily events in order to deepen the readers’ understanding of what having a disability means. I think this is a great book for anyone who has a connection to or is interested in knowing more about people with disabilities.
Here is an excerpt from Beacon Press:
I’ve learned that disability pushes us to examine ourselves and the difficult questions about the American past. Which peoples and which bodies have been considered fit and appropriate for public life and active citizenship? How have people with disabilities forged their own lives, their own communities, and shaped the United States? How has disability affected law, policy, economics, play, national identity, and daily life? The answers to these questions reveal a tremendous amount about us as a nation.
A Disability History of the United States places the experiences of people with disabilities at the center of the American story. It makes clear that there has been no singular disability experience. Although people with disabilities share social stigmatization, and sometimes are brought together by common experiences and common goals, their lives and interests have varied widely according to race, class, sexuality, gender, age, ideology, region, and type of disability—physical, cognitive, sensory, and/or psychological.
While telling the history of people with disabilities, A Disability History of the United States will also tell the history of the concept of disability. These are two very different tasks. Throughout US history, disability has been used symbolically and metaphorically in venues as diverse as popular culture and language. When “disability” is considered to be synonymous with “deficiency” and “dependency,” it contrasts sharply with American ideals of independence and autonomy. Thus, disability has served as an effective weapon in contests over power and ideology…
When disability is equated with dependency, disability is stigmatized. Citizens with disabilities are labeled inferior citizens. When disability is understood as dependency, disability is posited in direct contrast to American ideals of independence and autonomy. 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. We are an interdependent people. As historian Linda Kerber wrote, critiquing the gendered nature of the American ideal of individualism, “The myth of the lone individual is a trope, a rhetorical device. In real life no one is self-made; few are truly alone.” 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…
Disability is not the story of someone else. It is our story, the story of someone we love, the story of who we are or may become, and it is undoubtedly the story of our nation. It is, quite simply, the American story in all of its complexities. The story of US history is one of many efforts to define, contest, and enshrine a specific national body as best for the nation—a national body both individual and collective.