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Disability and the American Story (Jennifer Wurm)

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.