Disability—A Historiographical Survey

Authored by: Daniel J. Wilson

The Routledge History of the Twentieth-Century United States

Print publication date:  May  2018
Online publication date:  May  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138892071
eBook ISBN: 9781315709345
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9781315709345-33

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Abstract

Disability history is a relative newcomer to historical scholarship. It emerged in the late twentieth century along with the rise of disability activism that culminated in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Disability had come under study earlier by medical and social historians exploring the ways in which medicine and society dealt with individuals with physical and mental disabilities. There had been previous studies, for example, of wounded veterans of our nation’s wars and the nineteenth-century asylum movement that built institutions to care for the mentally ill and those unable to care for themselves. These older histories of disability were largely based on a medical model of disability. Medical models of disability focus on the impairment and on the efforts of medical professionals to treat and cure the impairment. As Kim Nielsen observed, “this framework considers disability to stem from bodily-based defects and tends to define disabled people almost exclusively by those diagnostic defects.” 1 Without ignoring the role of medicine in the lives of individuals with disabilities, the new generation of disability historians emphasizes a social model of disability in which social factors stigmatize disabilities and those who have them and which place barriers—physical, social, political and psychological—to the rights of the disabled and to their full participation in the social, economic, intellectual and political life of the community. On this point, Nielsen argued that “disability is not just a bodily category, but instead and also a social category shaped by changing social factors—just as is able-bodiedness.” 2 Over time, and over the twentieth century, she noted, these social factors have shifted: “Which bodily and mental variabilities are considered inconsequential, which are charming, and which are stigmatized, changes over time—and that is the history of disability.” 3

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