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Disability and the American Story (AJ Bishop)

Professor Kim Nielsen’s lecture on the history of disabilities was very eye-opening. Some of the themes that emerged throughout the lecture have also been present in class. The most apparent was how definitions and statuses can change over time. Another noticeable topic was racism and how it was related to disabilities. Through history an argument about disabilities was also tailored to back up sexism. The role of the impaired and the definition of disability had great impact on history.
The common belief about disabilities today is that they are a medical problem that can be fixed or compensated for. This definition, however, has not always been the dominant view. The public opinion about disability during the industrialization of the eighteenth century was that the disabled lived in poverty and were uneducated, according to Nielsen. This definition, and the reality of it at the time, limited handicapped people’s access to power and jobs. Nielsen explained that these limits resulted in a social structure with impaired individuals near the bottom.
Society did not offer any help to those who were disabled. One example of this is the slave ship Le Rodeur. This ship sailed in the early nineteenth century and carried a disease that caused blindness. Nielsen stated that almost forty slaves and a dozen sailors went blind or experienced reduced eyesight. Rather than attempting to aid the inflicted, the slaves were thrown overboard and the sailors were offered no help. These acts not only showed society’s unwillingness to help the handicapped, but also the deep rooted racism that has been so prevalent throughout class. Nielsen mentioned southern physician Samuel Cartwright, and explained that he believed that African Americans were natural slaves and those who did not accept it were disabled. The doctor believed that any slave that did not work hard or attempted to escape was mentally impaired.

Nielsen said that, like slavery, submission of women’s rights and education was backed by theoretical disabilities. A man named Edward Clarke actually believed that women who wanted better education were disabled. He called their minds “feeble” and held the notion that a college education would injure them. This restriction placed on women is something that occurs often throughout history and has appeared in class many times.
Handicaps even affected who was admitted into the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nielson said that even Charles Steinmetz who was a well-renowned mathematician was initially rejected entry because of his hunchback. By the definition at the time, he was a disabled man. America was attempting to keep out those who were weak and dependent, which was correlated with disabilities at the time. The ideal citizen was strong, independent and capable, and the country was trying to keep those who could not fit that profile from entering. Nielson also argued that the government did not comply with the disabled during wartime. Some handicapped people needed to drive their cars to work, but would require more gas than their rations would give them in order to drive every day. They needed the gas to get to work and keep their jobs. People that reached out to the government for more rations were told that they needed to sacrifice. The government would not spare any more rations in gas, even though some of its citizens needed them to stay employed.

During the presentation Nielson’s central argument was that disabilities have had an impact on history more than we know. It was argued many times that women and African Americans were disabled. These arguments were used to justify things like sexism, racism, and slavery. What determined that someone was disabled has changed greatly over time. Today we also give the disabled more compensation due to their limits. Overall the lecture was intriguing; I had never learned about the history and influence of disabilities before.