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Discussing Disability and the American Story (Gabrielle Van Hoet)

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.