A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen

Review by Jenna Rutsky

“Disability” as a whole is not a topic commonly found in the average social studies curriculum.  I had history classes that would mention President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of a wheelchair after contracting polio, or a brief aside to discuss President Woodrow Wilson’s handicaps of paralysis and loss of partial vision after a stroke in his second term.  During my time student teaching, not one of the historical figures we learned about had a disability that we discussed as a class.  I struggled between choosing to read either Kim E. Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States, or Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, but I decided to write my review of Nielsen’s book as I am not getting my special education certification as many of my other friends in the cohort are.  Though my knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the Americas is not incredibly broad, I do have more experience with that topic as I took several Native American history classes during my time as an undergraduate at Rutgers University.  But, aside from an online “Intro to Special Education” class, I felt I needed to learn more about the history of people with disabilities in the United States as an educator who will not only most likely be working at some point with students who have disabilities of their own, but also to educate all of my students about a history that has largely been ignored, in my own experience as a student. 

            Nielsen wrote a book which not only kept my attention with how clear it is, but also with how truly fascinating she kept her writing by including personal anecdotes from people with disabilities, as well from those who have discriminated against them throughout various time periods or witnessed this discrimination.  The main argument of A Disability History of the United States remains clear throughout the entire book: people with disabilities have a history all their own that has fallen by the wayside in terms of historical coverage and mass education to students.  Nielsen argues that this is a history that changes based on time period and culture, opening her book with a Native American view of disabilities before colonization, followed immediately after by a contrasting chapter of how early colonial settlers viewed disabilities.  But more subtle arguments appear throughout the book as themes, such as the reoccurring theme of discrimination against people with disabilities by those without disabilities. 

Discrimination against people with disabilities is still a civil rights issue today, which is how Nielsen concludes her book, bringing the reader to the twenty-first century with anecdotes of modern-day activists.  Another theme of the book is juxtaposing not only how able-bodied view people with disabilities, but how people with disabilities view themselves.  In no way does Nielsen write this book in condescending pity for people with disabilities.  She rather raises people with disabilities up to be identified by more than simply what they cannot do, but by highlighting what they can do in spite of their disability and how in various cultures and time periods, disability was not frowned upon, but instead those individuals were cared for by the community rather than shunned away.

            The argument of Nielsen’s book is effective mainly in its use of evidence to support her claims.  Her information has clearly been well researched with footnotes leading the reader to page after page of resources ranging from peer reviewed journals such as the Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences (Nielsen, 2012, p. 206) to the text from exhibit posters found at the Library of Congress (p. 201).  When Nielsen makes a claim about the treatment of people with disabilities, it is followed almost always by evidence to back up that claim.  For example, in Chapter Three, “The Late Colonial Era: 1700-1776,” Nielsen writes, “[Those considered valueless and often killed]… likely included those with physical disabilities that made them ineligible for slavery (pp. 43-44).”  The next page provides an excerpt of a primary source by a young boy named J.D. Romaigne serving on the slave ship Le Rodeur where many of the slaves on board for transport to the New World contracted blindness from ophthalmia, a contagious eye disease.  Nielsen cites Romaigne as saying, “The mate picked out thirty-nine negroes who were completely blind, and… tied a piece of ballast to the legs of each.  The miserable wretches were then thrown into the sea” (p. 45).  This gruesome retelling of such an appalling event perfectly supports Nielsen’s claim from just a page earlier; slaves with disabilities were typically “considered valueless and often killed” (p. 43). 

            Alternative interpretations of disability are the core content of the beginning of the book, especially, and this content continues throughout, though more sparsely, as the book goes on.  The remainder of the book focuses more often on disability as widely recognized, but not protected, and it then becomes a civil rights battle for equal rights.  I really enjoyed how the book is written in chapters that follow one another chronologically, to show the history of people with disabilities as one that does simply have an upward growth towards equal rights, but how that battle for equal rights was nonexistent, and then partially won, and then partially lost again, and how this battle continues into today’s society.  It is captivating how Nielsen starts with the treatment of people with disabilities amongst Native American cultures before European arrival, as this is an aspect of the topic I had never learned before.

But the book is limited, though it acknowledges this in the title, since it is only A Disability History of the United States.  The examination of Native American culture is the only look the reader gets at disability viewed by another culture other than mostly European immigrants to the United States.  She writes how Native Americans were generally unfazed by disability as, especially physical disability, was so common in the difficult work required to survive.  And anyone who could provide some service to the community was valued despite their disability.  The author does write two contrasting views immediately following one another, as disability was defined differently by separate tribes and individuals without any laws to define the rights of the disabled and who those laws should include.  Nielsen writes, “Some groups viewed the behaviors and perceptions of what today we call psychological disability as a great gift to be treasured and a  source of community wisdom (p. 5).  She then contrasts this statement by following up with, “Others considered them a form of a supernatural possession, or evidence of the imbalance of an individual’s body, mind, and spirit” (p. 5).  Alternative interpretations of disability are presented throughout the book within the setting of the chapter’s time period; for example, the varying accounts of disability and its differing treatments and levels of acceptance in the next chapter about European settlers, but it is up to the reader to connect those alternative interpretations within one chapter to past chapters. 

            The content of this book could inform classroom instruction in U.S. History not only in New Jersey schools, but schools across the nation.  Personal accounts of disability stretch from California protests for equal rights in the 1970s to “founding the nation’s first disability-specific institution in the United States, the American Asylum for the Deaf, in Hartford, Connecticut” (Nielsen, p.67).  And on the topic of asylums and other institutions for people with disabilities, the content of this book can connect to classroom instruction through the form of visual media.  Educators can connect Nielsen’s discussion of the conditions and purposes of asylums and institutions at their founding to their actual perpetuity in an example such as showing clips from journalist Geraldo Rivera’s publicly broadcast special about the horrors of Willowbrook State School in New York.  I recently watched the special in my “Inclusive Teaching” class this semester, and though it is from the 1970s, Rivera’s piece still sends shivers down my spine today.  It is a powerful visual component to incorporate into classroom instruction when discussing disabilities.

            The content of this book could also be used to engage students in current events by learning about the past.  For example, Nielsen writes, “Don Galloway of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on the Handicapped testified that every day, his office received phone calls from ‘people who are being discriminated against,’ and that as many as three hundred thousand Colorado citizens with disabilities needed civil rights protection” (Nielsen, p. 170).  Students could be asked to connect acts of the 1980s such as this, to modern acts of civilian participation in seeking to influence government. Students could be given examples such as this one provided by Nielsen and be asked to compare to the current events in which many American citizens have been calling their local senators to oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos to the position of Secretary of Education.  Articles about the two Republican senators who voted against DeVos, though not preventing her appointment, can be found from reliable sources such as the New York Times, quoted as saying “The two Republicans who voted against the nominee, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said Ms. DeVos was unqualified… Ms. Murkowski also said she had been influenced by thousands of messages she had received urging her to reject the nomination” (Alcindor & Huetteman, 2017).  Students can be asked to draw comparisons between the activism that influenced the acts of these government officials, and in turn, learn about being active citizens in a democracy and exercising their rights. 

            The social studies curricula we have analyzed thus far in class, Jarolimek, Hartoonian-Laughlin, and Kniep, all seem to have at least one common curriculum goal: create active citizens in a democracy.  I believe that A Disability History of the United States could absolutely fit into the curriculum design of U.S. History for middle or secondary school students.  I found Nielsen’s book to be so clear, concise, and grabbing to read more, that I would recommend it as reading for secondary students.  The vocabulary used by Nielsen is easy to understand and the story she tells is compelling, especially to students who mostly likely have never learned anything about the history of disability.  This book can be used to inform students of both middle and secondary education of the contributions and struggles of people with disabilities throughout history.  Nielsen offers countless examples of tales of strife and triumph of those with disabilities for educators to choose from based on grade level appropriateness.  On one hand, maybe middle school students could not emotionally handle the previously mentioned “Le Rodeur” example.  People with disabilities have always existed, and these time periods and cultures in which they are living are mostly being covered in U.S. history classes, but the individuals with disabilities themselves are not.

            The content of this book could inspire empathy, a goal our cohort discussed as a class that we would like to see in our own curricula.  The number of inclusion classes in the United States seems to be growing every year, I taught two during my student teaching, and I believe it is important for the peers in these classes of both students with disabilities and students without disabilities to respect one another.  Knowing the history of the disability movements in the United States can engender respect for a group of people who have been historically oppressed such as when Paul S. Miller, a top-of-his-class Harvard graduate had “over forty firms seeking his application”, but “after interviewing Miller, who was four and half feet tall, firms changed their minds” (Nielsen, p. 171).  This example can be taught to students to show the struggles of those with disabilities, but also their successes, as “Miller later become a commissioner of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and an international disability-rights expert” (Nielsen, p. 171). 

            A curriculum based around including the history of disabilities in the United States, such as the story of Paul S. Miller, would not be difficult to create.  Social studies educators already teach the time periods marked in Nielsen’s book.  For example, Nielsen writes, “The story of Robert Payne and the Disabled Miners and Widows is a story of class, labor, race, and place; it is also the story of the social reform movement that culminated in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society… (p. 159).  Mainstream approaches to U.S. History, based on my own experience in history classes in high school as a student, already include discussions of “class, labor, race, and place.”  To include the discussion of disability in this mix is natural as Nielsen in the aforementioned quote proves, the stories of people with disabilities overlap with other historical contexts already being taught.  To include a history of people with disabilities in the mainstream curriculum would challenge a curriculum that does not always include the stories of minorities based on race, gender, or ability.  During my student teaching, I was expected to follow a curriculum that mentioned a few historic women, barely any historic racial minorities other than those conquered or enslaved by Europeans, and no discussion of those with disabilities.  Curriculum design that includes the stories of people with disabilities paves the way for social studies educators to discuss the stories of all minorities, as people with disabilities can also be racial or gender minorities.  Nielsen’s book makes it easy for the social studies curriculum to include content from A Disability History of the United States, especially with her chapters clearly marked by the eras already being taught in the mainstream social studies curriculum of U.S. History.


Alcindor, Y. & Huetteman, E. (2017, February 7). Betsy DeVos confirmed as education secretary; Pence breaks tie.  The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/07/us/politics/betsy-devos-education-secretary-confirmed.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share.

Nielsen, K. E. (2012). A disability history of the United States. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. ty=”48

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