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“Disability and the American Story” (Shelby Anderson)

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.