Skip to content

The lecture "Disability and the American Story," given by Professor Kim E. Nielsen, focused on how disability is rooted at the center of American history. Some specific examples she touched on related to class themes such as the dehumanization of African Americans and views of women as inferior. On a French slave trading ship named La Rodeur, many African Americans became disabled due to contracting diseases such as drapetomania and hebetude. Thirty-nine went blind and twenty-six had diminished eyesight. Because they were disabled, the crew members viewed them as worthless, tied a block to their feet, and threw them into the sea. The owner of the ship actually filed an insurance claim for damaged cargo. In the case of African Americans, disability led to the maltreatment and dehumanization of them because disability was viewed as dependency, dependency was viewed as weakness, and weakness of the African Americans heightened the superiority of whites. As far as women were concerned in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were viewed as inferior to men. Even though education slowly became available to women as time went on, some men considered women who were getting an education as disabled. They believed that if a woman was pursuing an education, then she was mad or insane. Madness or insanity was viewed as being disabled, especially by James Otis Jr. who said that the only people who should have their rights taken away were idiots or madmen; ironically, he was eventually declared insane and stripped of his independence and property. So women were not only inferior, they were also insane if they pursued an education, which would lead to the loss of independence, by perhaps being assigned a guardian, or loss of property, if they owned any.

Professor Kim Nielson’s lecture on disability through out American history gave an interesting insight on an often-overlooked aspect in American society. Everyone always hears about the travesties that slaves, African-Americans, women, and Native Americans went through, but rarely do we hear about the disabled. Helen Keller, for example, refused to publicly endorse a candidate for Presidency because she was afraid no one would pay attention to anything but her disabilities. Slaves were thrown overboard if they were considered disabled.

This all ties into the themes we’ve been learning in class because it yet another section in society that was prejudiced against. Industrialization brought about lots of change in the American society, but what most people don’t realize is that it struck the disabled the hardest. People who could work just fine in their own homes could not get jobs in the factories. The factories themselves caused many to get disabled, whether they went blind or even lost a limb.
America is the melting pot, where tons of immigrants mingle and create a unique society. Back in the early 1800s, immigrants were turned down admission into the United States if the had “poor physique.” Since the definition of ‘disabled’ is very vague, this covered anyone with a “frail frame, flat chest.” It also covered undersized people and homosexuals.
The struggles of the disabled in America are often overlooked. These people are stigmatized as not being able to contribute to society, though this is often not the case, such as the deal with Helen Keller.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture on how the role that disability played in shaping America by Kim E. Nielsen. People who were considered "disabled" had less access to power, lived in poverty, and had little access to education. In her lecture, Nielsen described how disability affected Americans during the industrial revolution. Many workers could not get to factories to work because of injuries or disability. If people were not able to work, then they were seen as less economically valuable to society. Those who worked in factories also faced the dangers of working with heavy machinery that could harm them on the job.

Another case where disability took away the value of human life was during the slave trade. Nielsen told a story of the cruelties towards the disabled on a French slave ship, Le Rodeur. During the voyage, a disease spread which took the sight away from many Africans and crew members. Because the slaves were not able to see, the French saw them as less valuable. The captain had the blind slaves thrown overboard so that their disease would not spread to the other slaves. From this cruel act, we can conclude that many individuals devalued the lives of disabled because they were dependent on others. Some whites even thought that slavery was kind to Africans because their bodies were so disabled. Doctors invented "diseases" such as drapetomania, the enslaved attempt to escape, to justify that the Africans needed to be in slavery.

Disability was not only confined to those who had physical disability or who were a different race, but many women were also considered to be disabled. Many men thought that women could not attend college because their minds wouldn't be able to handle it. This was their way of keeping women from receiving a higher education.

It was a common belief that many individuals who were physically disabled would never be able to support themselves, however, there were many who proved that their disability did not limit them. Nielsen told of a Jewish immigrant named Steinmetz, who was initially denied entrance to America because he was a hunchback. Although many thought he would not be able to support himself, Steimetz went on to be a very successful inventor and an engineer for General Electric. Steinmetz's story proves that disability does not mean that a person who is handicapped is incapable of success.

From this lecture, I learned more about the ideas of who deserved to have rights as a citizen. Although many people believe that rights were for white men, they do not take into account the individuals with disabilities. Nielsen effectively showed how people were denied basic human rights because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, and physique. This idea of who should have rights has been a part of American history since the beginning of the Declaration of Independence. Although "all men are created equal" sounds like it would include a lot of people, many people were not given these privileges. It is important to learn more about disability through the ages to know how it has shaped history today. Although it had taken a lot of fighting, today those who were considered disabled now have the rights of all citizens. Nielsen's lecture effectively showed the struggles of those who were disabled, and how they got where they are today.

In her lecture “Disability and the American Story,” Dr. Kim E. Nielsen brings to light the idea that history, particularly American history, is built on and around the lives of people with disabilities. Nielsen raises the idea that if the audience considers disability with an intersectional analysis of gender, race, religion, et cetera, it is notable that historical pattern reflect that disabilities lead to a lack of power and a statistically higher level of poverty for those considered “disabled,” as well as skewed social structures, ideologies and practices. Nielsen also makes the point that a disability is not clearly defined; it has cultural and historic differences, conveys different definitions and connotations among different groups, and changes over time due to technology, social/economic change, and a shift of power.

In the context of the course material studied thus far, the term disability relates primarily to the treatment and enslavement of African Americans. During her lecture Nielsen told the history of the ship La Rodeur that was involved in the slave trade in the early 19th century. While shipping slaves across the Atlantic, an illness overcame the ship’s passengers and enslaved persons causing a significant portion of them to lose seeing ability or go completely blind in one or both eyes. Under the belief that blind people could not be effective laborers and with the idea that the slave trade existed purely to make money, the slaves that went blind or lost some of their eyesight were thrown overboard where sharks following the ship would then find them. Further, the captain of the ship demanded that he be compensated for his “damaged cargo”. As discussed in this course, African Americans were treated harshly and poorly during their enslavement. They were beaten, abused, separated from their families, and sold from one owner to the next with no consideration for their wants or desires. They were discredited, and the belief surrounded them that they were subpar and unintelligent based solely on their skin color. Nielsen noted that the “devaluing and dehumanization of African Americans was omnipresent in the slave trade.”

The sole basis of the slave trade was the enslavement of someone considered disabled to do anything but manual labor because of their race. The use of slaves in America was in essence a “kick-start” to American history in terms of economics and even in terms of fighting during wars that gained independence. Without this use of a so-called “disabled” group, America’s history and, as a result, its present would in no way, shape, or form be the same, thus supporting Nielsen’s idea that history is built around those with disabilities.

Kim Nielsen, author of A Disability History of the United States, gave a lecture on Disability and the American Story. Nielson began by pointing out that the definition, like many other words, has changed throughout history. Many factors affect the definition of disability. As these factors changed with time, so did the definition of disability.

She was able to prove the effects of these factors with examples. Helen Keller, the first example, showed that disability did not hold her back, but the attitude toward disability at the time did. The next example, the story of the slave ship La Rodeur, proved that two people with the same disability could be treated differently just because of race. Her last example was one of an immigrant. He was not granted citizenship because of a disability. This disability was a petite physique. Everything from attitudes to appearances could constitute a disability.

The other point Nielsen emphasized was that disability was an integral part of history. A disabled slave was worth less because he/she could not do as much physical labor as a slave without a disability. Disability, before the industrial revolution, did not keep a person from making a living. The switch to factories, however, limited the ability of a disabled person to work. This pattern continues.

The final point Nielsen made was that disability is not the same as dependency. Only when society equates the two does disability hold a person back. Learning about the history of the United States, the class has covered everything from beginning of the colonies to all changes made within the country as the nation grew. We have focused on the differing points of view, but this is a new point of view to look at history through.

Not long before July 2014, a generous donor has given $12.3 million to restore the Confederate General Robert E. Lee's home in Arlington, Virginia. This article gives a brief description of Lee's involvement in the Civil War, and the importance of the area in which his house resides.

Posted by Megan Coffin

This article addresses the national debate about whether or not Columbus Day should still be celebrated as a national holiday. On one hand, many feel that it should not be recognized because of Columbus's poor treatment of the indigenous people of Santo Domingo and the Spanish colonies. On the other hand, many Americans feel that Columbus Day is a celebration of Italian heritage and the discovery of America.

Posted by Megan Coffin

In this article, the contents of Dudley Saltonstall's logbooks give insight into Connecticut's role in the transatlantic slave trade during the 18th century. The logbook has accounts of disease from slaves coming to America from Africa, Saltonstall's involvement in the Revolutionary War as a first Captain of the Continental Navy, and John Easton's trade for slaves in Africa.

Posted by Megan Coffin