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Disability and the American Story (Megan Coffin)

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.