Writing A Disability History of the US: A Multi-Disciplinary Approach


by  Kim E. Nielsen, author of A Disability History of the United States (Beacon Press, 2012)

A Disability History of the United States has been both the hardest and most exciting intellectual project in which I’ve engaged. Disability history is labor history. It is gender history, immigration history, education, class and political history. It is central to the American narrative but has thus far remained largely unacknowledged.

I fumbled my way into disability history by accident over a decade ago when I ran across a political speech of Helen Keller’s.  Doing so transformed my basic understandings of U.S. history—making me a better teacher, scholar, and historian.

My hope for this book is that it will provide new directions from which to examine the difficult questions about the American past. Which peoples and which bodies have been considered fit and appropriate for public life and active citizenship? How have people with disabilities forged their own lives, their own communities, and shaped the United States? How has disability affected law, policy, economics, play, national identity, and daily life? In what ways has disability woven together with race, class, gender, and sexuality to form and alter national power structures? The answers to these questions reveal a tremendous amount about us as a nation.

Disability matters in our national story because it forces consideration of the strengths, weaknesses, and contradictions of American ideals. Taking note of race, class, and gender, scholars have examined the historical expansion of democracy. It is time to do the same for disability. Disability is not the story of someone else. It is our story, the story of someone we love, the story of who we are or may become, and it is undoubtedly the story of our nation. It is, quite simply, the American story in all of its complexities.

For me, this also is a personal project. A week or two after signing the contract for A Disability History of the United States, and after I’d been working in disability history for over a decade, my daughter suddenly became seriously ill. As a result she became a disabled young woman. This experience has affected the book in tangible and intangible ways. Most immediately, it delayed and prolonged the writing process—as all of you will understand!  Intellectually and emotionally, it deepened the book and made it better. Most profoundly, I expect, it significantly but subtly altered the questions I ask.

This is a different book than the one I started, for I am a different person, and I live in a different family, than existed several years ago. The wonderful, delightful, confusing, and frustrating paradox of disability, however, is that I am also the same person, and I live in the same family, that existed several years ago.

The same is true, I believe, when considering U.S. history through the experiences of people with disabilities and when using disability as a tool of analysis.  The history that emerges will be deeply familiar but also inherently and markedly different from that previously considered.

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