DSQ > Summer 2008, Volume 28, No.3

I entered disability history and disability studies by intellectual accident. As a child and as a graduate student in U.S. women's history, I never imagined, nor did I intend, that I would grow to be identified as the Helen Keller woman. A library search spurred by dissertation procrastination pushed me in that direction; later my naïveté pulled me along. Thus I find myself, able-bodied, female, a little nerdy, hopelessly Midwestern, and enthralled with the exciting intellectual endeavor of disability history. Disability, I believe, is an effective tool, currently one of the most promising tools, by which historians can do excellent history and continue the task of unpacking the past.

Historians and other scholars generally agree that race, class, and gender (some include sexuality) function as the building blocks of our social institutions. The insights of disability studies and disability activists have established firmly that disability belongs in this list as well. As scholars of disability, and as historians striving for excellence, however, we need to push beyond expansion of the analytical triumvirate. The promise of disability as an analytical tool is that it points scholars in the direction not only of juggling these analytical frameworks, but of doing the historical analysis that unpacks their intersectionality.

As a U.S. historian, I find examples from America's past useful for explaining anything and everything. Consider, for example, the year 1908, conveniently a century ago, for an explanation of why disability as a tool of analysis matters. In 1908 California's compulsory sterilization law went into effect, and its widespread application resulted in what scholars estimate as almost 1/3 of the nation's eugenic sterilizations. In 1908 a race riot erupted in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln's hometown, and a mob of white citizens lynched four African Americans after an alleged sexual assault. Activists founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in partial response. In 1908 Congress passed the Federal Employers Liability Act, the first workers compensation law. In 1908, in his essay "Feminization in School and Home," influential psychologist G. Stanley Hall warned that the growing feminization of American boys and men endangered the nation. And in 1908, the Supreme Court decided in Muller v. Oregon that women's bodies necessitated protective labor legislation — but men's did not. Because women bore children, their "physical well-being" caused them to be "an object of public interest and care" in order that "the strength and vigor of the race" be preserved.

I believe that disability offers the means by which to make historical sense of this litany of events — a litany seemingly connected by nothing but chronological accident and my historical culling. Using disability as an analytical framework simply means that the historian asks questions about past definitions of "fit" and "unfit" bodies and minds. How did social institutions attempt to create and enforce adherence to those definitions? What were the consequences of those definitions for social relationships, legal institutions, democracy, education, medicine, bodies, epistemological frameworks, foreign policy, social welfare, and on and on? Who is excluded and why? I am not arguing that disability trumps gender, race, or class; for even that point of dissent assumes the separateness of those categories. Instead, I argue that the inclusion of disability as an analytical framework offers us a strategy by which to weave our multiple analyses together.

Thus, back to my 1908 calendar. Gender matters in that list, as do race and class. Pedagogically and intellectually, however, how can one understand G. Stanley Hall, the Springfield race riot and the creation of the NAACP, and Mueller v. Oregon at the same time? How can we as historians help the general public make sense of the past? These events from 1908, despite their differences, share a common characteristic: all are efforts to define, care for, contest, and enshrine a specific national body as best for the nation — a national body that is both individual and collective. Those individuals with bodies defined as undesirable experienced the consequences, as did those with bodies defined as desirable. The same is true in 2008.

Historians of women such as Gerda Lerner have noted that historians had to document accurately the lives women's history before gender could be used as a tool of analysis. The same is true of disability history. Because it benefits from the insights of women's and gender history, however, disability history is swiftly expanding on these intellectual steps.

The risk of applying disability as a tool of analysis, before the history of disability is firmly established and written, is that we must not lose disabled bodies and the daily lived experiences of people with disabilities as we do so. Scholars interested in doing excellent history, fairly and justly, must be cautious of the ways such scholarship can be abused to justify continued oppression. Scholars who use disability as a tool of analysis must be careful to avoid benefiting from the analytical intelligence of disability while erasing people with disabilities. There is, however, great potential in disability history. Whiteness studies have strengthened the study of race, and the study of masculinity has strengthened the study of gender. The study of disability, alongside what will become the conscious study of ability (for lack of a better word), can excite the study of history.

Historians, other scholars, and activists in this field have this project well underway. A first step has been professionalization and bureaucratization. Catherine Kudlick's article, "Disability History: Why We Need Another 'Other,'" which appeared in the June 2003 issue of the American Historical Review, offered many historians their first intellectual exposure to disability history.1 The 2004 creation of the transnational Disability History Association (DHA), chaired first by myself and now by Catherine Kudlick of UC-Davis, is an important first step.2 The DHA offers scholars a means to connect, opportunities to share research, and a way to identify professional issues. At the prompting of the DHA, the American Historical Association (AHA) and the DHA are jointly working to advance disability history; to insure the accessibility of history conferences, publications, and hiring practices; and to guarantee that historians with disabilities are treated justly in the profession. One result is that the November 2006 issue of the AHA's Perspectives focused on the theme of "Disability in History." The growing popularity of H-Disability, a listserv of the widely used H-Net and co-edited by Penny Richards and Daniel Wilson, additionally signifies the expanding interest of historians in the study of disability.3 Increasing numbers of courses in disability history, undergraduate and graduate, reflect growing interest among students.

The expanding number of scholars of all levels, of wide-ranging intellectual training and focus, and the increasing number of excellent publications in disability history, make exciting and possible the first conference devoted to disability history exclusively. This summer, from 31 July to 3 August 2008, San Francisco State University's Institute on Disability, the DHA, and the Disability History Group of the United Kingdom are sponsoring the conference "Disability History: Theory and Practice" at San Francisco State University.4 Paul K. Longmore, a primary instigator of this conference, and Lauri Umansky edit a series through New York University Press devoted exclusively to disability history. In 2001 the press initiated the series with The New Disability History: American Perspectives and has continued expansion of the series since. Disability-related historical scholarship is also being published and promoted by other presses with interest in disability history.

While the professionalization and bureaucratization of disability history have been and continue to be important, disability historians also are laboring at that ever important intellectual task of infiltration and integration — into graduate programs, courses, journals, publishing houses, panels, job descriptions, and conferences not devoted to disability. Infiltration, however, is both the rub and the excitement. The study of history is done best, and most intelligently, when we blur the artificial and socially constructed boundaries that create and separate historical sub-fields. Disability, as both field and tool of analysis, offers effective tools to historians and other scholars who desire to better understand past events such as those of 1908.

Kim E. Nielsen is Professor of History and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Her publications include The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (NYUP 2004) and Helen Keller: Selected Writings (NYUP 2005), as well as numerous journal articles. Her most recent book, Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship With Helen Keller, will be published by Beacon Press, spring 2009.


  1. Catherine J. Kudlick, "Disability History: Why We Need Another ‘Other'," American Historical Review 108 (June 2003), 763-93. This article is available online at http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/108.3/kudlick.html.
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  2. The Disability History Association website can be accessed at http://dha.osu.edu/.
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  3. Information about subscribing to H-Disability and past discussions can be read at http://www.h-net.org/~disabil/.
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  4. The full conference announcement is available online at http://dha.osu.edu/news/spring08/SFSU08.html.
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Copyright (c) 2008 Kim E. Nielsen

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