Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2004, Volume 24, No. 3
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Points of Entry:
Disability and the Historical Geography of Immigration

Penny L. Richards Ph.D.
Research Scholar, UCLA Center for the Study of Women
Email: turley2@earthlink.net

Girl Emigrants. Though not required to be STRIKINGLY BEAUTIFUL, they must be above 4ft 8in, and in no way deformed or disfigured, even by a squint.
    --Advertisement, "Daily News" (undated; quoted in Kranidis 1999: 155)
Let no one believe that landing on the shores....is a pleasant experience; it is a hard, harsh fact, surrounded by the grinding machinery of the law which shifts, picks, and chooses; admitting the fit and excluding the weak and hopeless.
     --Edward Steiner, On the Trail of the Immigrant (1906: 72; quoted in Lee 1999: 85)

Marion Brown would have emigrated with the other young members of her extended family when they left rural Scotland for Pennsylvania, in the 1860s and 1870s. But because she had physical and sensory impairments, and because she was caring for an aging aunt, she stayed behind, never to follow, despite available funds (Hutchison 2003a).

Florence Aulph might never have emigrated from England in 1913, if she and her father had been able-bodied. But her dragging leg, her father's tuberculosis, and her mother's latest pregnancy seemed like too many challenges for one family to handle alone. Florence was taken to a home for "crippled children" and, at 12, loaded onto a boat for Canada with other "orphans" (Bean and Melville 1989: 10).

Disability is a complicated, overlooked factor in the history of immigration, as illustrated by these two women's stories. Informal perceptions, practical barriers, policies and legal restrictions regarding disability met families at their points of origin, in transit, at the gates of their destinations, and wherever they finally settled. Changing taxonomies of disability, variations in the severity and visibility of an impairment from individual to individual and from moment to moment, scientific and folk perceptions of corruption and danger associated with specific conditions more than others, all further complicated the picture. This factor in the selection and success of immigrants has gone nearly unmentioned in historical geographic literature on immigration, but it shaped the immigrant experience, contributed to the formation of transnational family networks, and impacted the construction of "the immigrant" in the majority cultures of North America. In the words of Douglas Baynton, "One of the fundamental imperatives in the initial formation of American immigration policy at the end of the 19th century was the exclusion of disabled people. Beyond the targeting of disabled people, the concept of disability was instrumental in crafting the image of the undesirable immigrant." (Baynton 2001: 45) These entanglements of disability, immigration, space and place continue into the present. In this article, some of the ways disability and immigration have met will be outlined, with examples from the existing literature, mostly but not exclusively drawn from work on the "Great Wave" of immigration to North America (1880s-1920s). The result is a rough "sketch map" for future researchers embarking on such projects.

Historical geographers and others interested in immigration history may not have approached disability in this context directly, but helpful groundwork has been done in related areas. Feminist geographers, for example, have complicated the historical study of immigration by questioning the dominant narratives and pursuing research at a scale that reveals gendered experiences at the private, domestic, and community level, while simultaneously marking the place of women in large-scale schemes of nationbuilding and empire (Morin and Berg 1999, Walter 1997, Kay 1997, Ryan 2001, Ryan 2003). The physical and emotional toll of migration, the relocating body's experience, is part of this project. The position of single women immigrants, especially from the British Isles, has received considerable attention in recent years, much of it focused on their social positioning as "surplus," "redundant" members of society, drains on the economy, problems to be exported (Kranidis 1998, Kranidis 1999; Flad 1995; O'Connell 2000-2001). In this, such studies offer analogy and resonance to studies of people with disabilities, like Florence Aulph, who were recruited for assisted emigration schemes during the same period, for some of the same reasons.

Medical historical geographers, meanwhile, have been producing some fascinating work on the immigrant's association with disease in American cities. "Medical discourses continue to be, and have historically become, powerful through policies grounded in spatial practices including immigration legislation, facilities closure, quarantine, domestic hygiene, and sanitation engineering" (Craddock and Dorn 2001: 314). Susan Craddock's work on San Francisco stands out here for its comprehensive and multifaceted study of the ways tuberculosis, syphilis, smallpox, and other dangerous contagions were understood (often against statistical evidence to the contrary) to reside mainly in the bodies of the Chinese, in the buildings and streets of Chinatown, and in the ships that arrived at Angel Island (Craddock 1998, Craddock 1999, Craddock 2001). Her comparison of the public health policies in San Francisco with those in other American cities lends a particular geographic subtlety to the analysis, showing that the native response was hardly uniform from region to region. Confirming this regional complexity, historians Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern find that medical examination routines at four entry points to America (Ellis Island, Angel Island, the Mexican and Canadian borders) varied significantly in their specifics and their extent (Markel and Stern 1999). While these studies have to date focused more on disease, they point to jurisdictional, regional, and urban issues worth pursuing as disability topics in medical historical geographies of immigration.

Traditional historical geographers working on immigration have left disability mostly unexamined as a factor. The reasons are partly methodological: the standard approach in recent decades has been demographic, linking census records and business directories and church membership rolls to describe the contours of whole communities of immigrants, their residential concentration, their networks of information and support, their patterns of dispersal (or local persistence) over time. Disability --so unreliably recorded in censuses, so complex in its names and degrees-- is not as easily worked into this tradition as the more readily determined differences like religious affiliation, language, literacy, age, marital status, occupation, race, and citizenship. But the invisibility of disability in historical records is partly a myth--as noted by Baynton, "disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it" (Baynton 1999: 52). It is time for historical geographers of immigration to begin looking too, applying the field's existing appreciation of diversity and community, and its impressive methodological creativity, to this subject (see Imrie 1996 on diversity as a missing theme in disability geography). Recent calls for more cultural, biographical, and ethnographic approaches to the geography of migration encourage hope (McHugh 2000).

Where to start? It seems appropriate to follow the "trail of the immigrant." Most often associated with point-of-entry medical examinations, the impact of disability on the immigration process actually reaches back to the point of origin, where decisions about migration are first made, through the journey itself, and after those infamous checkpoints, into the urban neighborhoods and rural homesteads of the immigrants' final destinations. By following this path, through the existing literature, drawing from multiple disciplines, this paper seeks "points of entry" where historical geographers might best approach immigration and disability together, as spatial phenomena.

Points of Origin. Historical geographers have long attended to the question of immigration selection: who immigrated and who did not, and why? The usual explanations are economic (considering both "push" and "pull" factors of the economies in both home country and potential destinations), cultural (a "readiness" to emigrate being developed in a given community like any other innovation, through information-gathering, adventurous early adopters, etc.), and psychological (self-selected emigrants differing from their staying peers in personality traits like risk-taking and emotional independence) (Gans 1999: 1302; Doeppers 1986: 382; MacKintosh 1991: 171; Knowles 1999: 122; Dovidio and Esses 2001: 379). Much of this accounting assumes a level of autonomy few immigrants can truly have had: minor children, for example, mainly immigrated if their families did, not because they made a personal decision to seek new opportunities abroad; 19th-century wives and some adult daughters must generally have been bound to their husbands' or fathers' plans, whether or not their own desires would have chosen emigration. Farmers about to lose their lands or urban workers facing uncompensated redundancy cannot be said to experience an economic "push" to emigrate, so much as a " rough shove." And all the explanations assume a decision-maker whose physical, mental, and sensory abilities seemed sufficient to the process ahead.

Marion Brown's family's pattern demonstrates the ways disability restricted immigration right at the source (Hutchison 2003a). When the first members of the Glencross-Brown household left the farm near Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire, in 1852, Marion was a girl of 8, an orphan soon to be raised by a widowed aunt; that aunt, Agnes "Nancy" Glencross Scott, was also caring for her own frail mother: "...our Mother she is turned very frail; she cannot go betwixt the bed and fire; she is to be carried in a chair to the fireside. Samuel and Nancy I believe wad have come to America if it was not for our Mother," one uncle explained (Glencross 1855). This caregiving responsibility as a restraint on immigration continued into Marion's own life: as a woman in her 50s, she wrote of a recent offer of a chaperone, "I told him I could go to America with him but for one thing. I could not leave Aunt" (Brown 1897). The women were actually of mutual support to one another, and Marion elsewhere points to her own physical condition as the main factor preventing her immigrating: "I was telling Aunt if I could have walked any I would have gone to America with John White," she wrote in 1869 (Brown 1869).

In setting out the aims of his study of Swedish immigrants to rural Minnesota, Robert Ostergren asked, "And what about those who remained behind?" (Ostergren 1988: 23) Some of them, no doubt, were like Marion Brown and her Aunt Agnes Scott--held back not by their will, nor by opportunity, nor by any law or policy, but by their self-assessment, as women with chronic health issues, that they were unfit for traveling such a long distance; and as family caregivers, that their help was indispensable at home.

At the same time, other people with disabilities were apparently more likely to emigrate than their abler peers. Florence Aulph, for example, having been placed in group care, fell into the general category of children who, by their current dependence on the state or the local parish, or their expected dependence later in life, were considered eligible for assisted emigration to Canada, Australia, and other British colonies (Bean and Melville 1989; also on assisted emigration from England, see Haines 1994, Haines 1991, Howells 1998, Hadley 1990, and especially Howells 2003: 599, which mentions a "deformed but v. shrewd boy" being assisted to emigrate by his parish in 1845). Others with chronic health issues might be sent to live with faraway relatives, to benefit from the effects of a different climate (MacLean 2000: 237), or to escape harsh treatment in their homeland (Davidsen 2001). Such selection for disability was viewed with strong suspicion and disapproval in the receiving countries. Fear of just such arrivals--described in one Canadian editorial as "the diseased offscourings of the hotbeds of hellish slumdom"-- directly motivated the passage of restrictive legislation like the Ontario Act of 1897 (Wagner 1982: 150-154), which made it a crime to bring into the province any child of "defective" intellect or physique.

The Journey Itself. Part of the reason a Marion Brown decided against emigration was the hardship of the journey (Hutchison 2003b): "I am not fit for the journey at this time for I am told there is 10 chances to one if ever I got to the other side of the water alive," she explained (Brown, 1879). The history of women emigrants is filled with references to the physical risks of crowded port cities and ocean crossings: "there ensues a scene of jostling, pushing, struggling, & c, such as is not witnessed elsewhere," an Australian newspaper reported in 1885, about an office for receiving and hiring new female immigrants (quoted in Kranidis 1998: 156). "Then commenced a regular stampede," reported the Cork Examiner in 1880, about a rush for a ferry boat serving immigrants (quoted in O'Connor 2000-2001: 111). Hostels and temporary shelters catering to emigrants in port cities like Genoa had notoriously poor hygiene practices (Molinari 1993: 133; see also Weiss 2001). Adding to the physical demands were heavy trunks, much standing, close quarters, seasickness, and limited food and drink. Beyond these formidable physical demands, immigration was also understood as a disruptive emotional experience (McHugh 2000: 84). The mental health of immigrants--many of them in unfamiliar surroundings for the first time in their lives--was strained by the realities of separation from loved ones, loneliness, confusion, stress, and fear. In addition, crucial information along the way may only have been presented in spoken or written formats that did not serve deaf or blind travellers.

The process was never meant to support a wide range of diverse bodies; its hardship was openly admired as a positive, social-Darwinist filter, allowing only the "fittest" to succeed. Ellsworth Huntington, Yale geographer and, from 1934-1938, president of the Eugenics Society of the United States, held up Australia and California as beneficiaries of this "rigid process of selection":

Australia is far removed from the rest of the world. As a general rule, only those who are physically strong and whose families, especially the wives, are also physically strong, make the long journey from other countries to Australia. Of course the people there are healthy and have healthy children...Natural selection has created there almost a newrace....the majority of the Forty-Niners were above the average in the qualities that cause a nation to make progress. They were a selected people, chosen from a people who had already been through a rigid process of selection....Then they began to bring their wives and sweethearts from the East. Here too, the same great selection went on...Only the braver and more adventurous women and those with strong physiques went out to that far land (Huntington 1924).

Others in the era stressed the moral necessity of this hardship, as analogous to the trials of the people of Israel in the Exodus, the sufferings of Christian martyrs, the privations of the Pilgrims, or other meaningful predecessors, thus positioning any failure to complete the immigrant's journey as a spiritual failure, as well (Gerstle 2000: 66). This theme -- the greater "friction of distance" when immigration was undertaken by people with disabilities, including any conscious efforts made to preserve that greater hardship -- is a natural topic for historical geographers to consider, but has not yet been addressed in the field.

Points of Entry. As migrants cross national borders, they become emigrants from their homeland, and immigrants in all others. So it is at the point of crossing a border that much immigration history research about disability focuses. At these gates, national and local public health policies take effect (Hoskins 2002, Maddern 2002). This effect was never uniform at all entries on the American border: regional variations and shifting jurisdictions meant that, for example, a person with trachoma might be noticed at Angel Island in San Francisco, but not stopped at a Great Lakes port city (Markel and Stern 1999, Stern 1999, Beaud and Prevost 1996; Polyzoi 1986). Nor did it pose a uniform bar for all immigrants with disabilities: certain invisible disabilities (such as mental illness, or deafness) might with care be concealed from inspectors, while others (for example, those that clearly affected mobility, posture, or facial appearance) would be harder to miss. We know much about the practice of medical examinations of newcomers, through medical history (Yew 1980, Sears 1990, Roberts 1986, Dowbiggin 1997). And we see in such expert-level stories how "the concept of disability was instrumental in crafting the image of the undesirable immigrant" by conflating ethnic and ability categories, as Douglas Baynton writes (Baynton 2001: 47).

But we have much less research about how these laws and policies were experienced by their stated targets (Markel 2000). We need a vernacular history of disability in this passage (Bredberg 1997). How much information about these patterns of restrictions did immigrants with disabilities, and their families, have before arrival? Did they seek alternative routes to avoid particularly stringent crossings, or pay extra to book higher-status passage and thus avoid close scrutiny? Anecdotal evidence suggests some people "passed," hiding their disability for the duration of the official surveillance--was there a disability lore about how best to achieve this pretense, a justified resentment at its necessity? (That strategy could require years of subterfuge, in some cases; see Comeau & Allahar 2001: 15, on Canada's two-year deportation window for "defective" immigrants in the early-20th century.) When a person was rejected for entry as "unfit," what happened next for him, and for the rest of his family? All of these scenarios deserve further consideration as elements of both disability history and historical geography.

The Destination. Immigrant communities, whether urban ethnic neighborhoods or rural clusters, offered a mixed bag of supports and constraints to a person with disabilities. Typically in urban settings the location of workplaces and housing which were more hazardous, crowded, and otherwise unhealthy, such neighborhoods were perceived as dangerous by the city at large, which in some cases justified their neglect--a state of affairs that did little to bring schools, clinics, public transportation, nutrition programs, and other services (Craddock 1998, Dwork 1981). When services were extended into such locations, they might be patronizing, or misguided, or simply incomprehensible, in their attempts to prevent or cure disability through "Americanization" (Craddock 2001), or even entangle the immigrant in a web of aggressive programs designed, ultimately, to separate people with disabilities from their family and friends (Snyder and Mitchell 2002; Abel 1998, Abel 2000). Massive government statistical reports, thick with tables and graphs, detailed the ways immigrants and their children were measured for flaws, physical deviations, and tendencies to seek help (Senate Document #208, "Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants," and #665, "Immigrants as Charity Seekers," 1911, for two examples). Eugenic policies targeted the differences these reports documented, segregating those identified (often through extremely cursory examinations) as defective because of physical or mental impairment, with the result that immigrants—many of whom had few resources to fight such confinement—comprised a high proportion of those institutionalized or excluded as feeble-minded or otherwise unfit (Dwyer 2003, Abel 1998). Public schools were a site for much of this classification and separation: the explicit linking of immigrant ethnicity and ability grouping is found in this 1907 reminder to principals:

For one not familiar with national characteristics it is an easy thing to take the heavy sluggish response of the Slavic child as indicative of real mental ability, while the children of Latin Europe, with their lively shifting and seemingly inconsistent attention to school duties seem to the teacher to be unfitted for regular grade work. (New York City 1907: 620, cited in Hendrick and MacMillan 1989: 405).

So the "national characteristics" of Europeans looked a lot like educational disabilities; or, alternatively, they masked educational disabilities. Either way, the children of immigrants were (and in many cases continue to be) significantly overrepresented in many special education programs (Hendrick and MacMillan 1989: 413).

Self-help organizations from within ethnic communities became active in response to the absence or inadequacy of external, majority-culture institutions. These had the potential to be more sensitive and appropriate supports, but they could also reproduce traditions ill-suited for their new environment (Weiler 1992). "They take care of their own" was uttered with admiration when an immigrant community formed internal mechanisms for attending to human needs, but that admiration might come with the assumption that members of such a community would, therefore, need no further assistance (Soyer 1997). Further, complete insularity was frowned upon by nativists who expected assimilation into the majority culture to happen as soon as possible (Mirel 1997). Some ethnic communities responded to broader cultural anxieties by embracing native eugenic or other ideologies advocating a stricter bodily norm (Hartman 1998, Ostergren 1988: 307-311). Other ethnic communities produced a literary response, narrating the human toll of such contradictory pressures, restrictions, and scrutinies (Anzia Yezierska's "The Free Vacation House" and "Soap and Water" are cited by Dwyer 2003 as two classic examples of this genre). While research on these variations in the present day proliferates (Dyck 1992), there is much more to be done with historical approaches to these ethnic community services and reactions, especially with an awareness of their spatial dimensions.

Long residence and apparent assimilation in a new land do not necessarily distance an immigrant from the emotional trauma of the move. "Nostalgia," literally "an ache to return home," was the very geographic label given to debilitating experiences of depression, anxiety, and confusion in immigrants, who may have become doubly stigmatized, both by foreign birth and by the appearance of mental illness. As early as 1774, the problem was identified as age-related (Gjerde 1999: 40). David Gerber (1998: 11) described one Scottish woman struggling with depression and nostalgia decades after establishing her home and family in New York, "long grieving and increasingly debilitated physically." While this phenomenon is recognized in among current public health practitioners as affecting, in various ways, immigrants from a wide array of ethnic and socioeconomic groups (see Kim 1999, Escobar et al. 2000, James 2002, among many such studies), this is another topic waiting for the attention of historical geographers interested in the health consequences of relocation, and the social construction of remembered places.

Transnational Networks and Diaspora. Marion Brown remained all her life in the neighborhood of Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, while her abler relations moved to Pennsylvania. For more than 40 years, she maintained a correspondence with her American cousins, reporting on her own physical and financial condition and on changes in her family and neighborhood: her aunt's increasing frailty, her cousin's mine-damaged lungs, another relative's permanent brain injury. In return, her American cousins sent support, usually money, but also in the form of continuing correspondence of reciprocal warmth and emotional intimacy. Marion's disability status and caregiving responsibilities kept her from emigrating; so her family became transnational, and her evolving health issues became a central reason for maintaining those trans-Atlantic bonds of obligation. "If it was not for the kindness of my friends to me I don't know how I would do for I have never been able to work for myself and seems to be as unfit to work as ever," she thanked her American cousins after one cash gift (Brown, 1878). Her letters contained more than simple gratitude; in them, Marion Brown trod a careful line between conveying her real needs and avoiding a tone of complaint that might cause these stretching family ties to fray and break.

Transnational effects past and present are an ongoing theme of immigration studies, and historical geographers take particular interest in cross-border links (Menjivar 1997, Faist 2000, Ostergren 1988, Gjerde 1999, McKeown 1999, Topp 1997). Remittances like those sent to Marion Brown continue to flow across transnational kinship networks, organizing space across borders and carrying "a symbolic indication of the absentees' ongoing commitment to their extended family" (Ballard 2001; see also Pribilsky 2001, Miltiades 2002, Connell and Conway 2000, Overland 2002). Exchanges of correspondence also trace out and strengthen these networks, while they "inscribe the bodies of correspondents" by recording emotional and physical states (Gerber 2000: 14). Especially in a time when return visits were difficult or discouraged (Shumsky 1992), proxy means of assuring the well-being of extended family were a major concern for immigrants and their relatives back home. If disability was a factor in separating families through emigration, it was also a factor in establishing and maintaining transnational networks of obligation, support, and concern, a truth to which decades-long patterns of remittance and correspondence attest.

Finally, cultural historical geographies of immigration have described many groups' patterns as diasporic (Jenkins 2003, Segrott 2001, Samers 1997, Walter 1997), reflecting a sense of ongoing connection to the immigrant's place of origin, a persistent "displaced" identity sometimes carrying through generations of apparent settlement and assimilation (McKittrick 2000). Can a diaspora of disability cultures also be identified in the past? Deaf cultures are sometimes said to have undergone diaspora through transnational migration, as specific sign languages spread through human movement across borders (British Deaf settling Australia, for example, brought British Sign Language, which formed the roots of Auslan; French immigrants to the US brought French-inspired signing to early American deaf education; see also Paddy Ladd on Deaf culture and diaspora). There were schemes for all-Deaf frontier settlements in the North American West, which were proposed by American J. J. Flournoy and Englishwoman Jane Elizabeth Groom, as self-determination plans which would establish a freer, more supportive community away from the majority--much like the plans of other linguistic or cultural minority groups migrating in the same era. Others have applied the metaphor of diaspora to communities of people who experience autism, and to the Independent Living Movement (Schwarz 1999). Historical geographers might contribute much to research on this facet of disability and immigration.

Conclusion. Oscar Handlin famously observed, "I once thought to write a history of immigrants in America. Then I discoverd that the immigrants were American history" (Handlin 1951: 3, quoted in Schneider 2003). If we combine this with Douglas Baynton's declaration that "disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it," we must conclude that the historical study of immigration and disability is not marginal to our understanding of American history, but of central significance, uniquely positioned to place geographic concepts such as mobility, borders, community, and citizenship in a network of broader contexts. Further, none of the elements of the journey described herein is confined to the past. While the particulars change from year to year, disability is still a factor in every stage along the immigrant's path. Legal immigrants with disabilities are still frequently denied citizenship even when they are otherwise qualified (Berube 2003, Berube 1997, Mosoff 1999). Anne Fadiman's widely-assigned account of a Hmong family's experience with severe childhood epilepsy in California touches many of the same issues of linguistically inadequate public health provisions, mutual suspicions of ill-will and quackery across the native-immigrant divide, long-term psychological stress of relocation and longing for one's homeland (Fadiman 1997).

Where are the sources for this work? Admittedly, many of the staple documents of immigration history are, on their own, insufficient to the task: for example, the manuscript U.S. census returns for some years include notations about disabilities, but this accounting is often vague or underrepresentative. While sex and race were seen as "check one" attributes, and age was quantifiable (if not always reported with consistency), disability confounded such simple boxes and numbers. Communities united by disability are not quite like religious communities, clustered predictably around a place of worship, easily mapped onto city grids. But the research mentioned herein points to other possibilities. Family correspondence, like Marion Brown's, records first-hand the emotional and geographic experience of immigration for the families divided and united by disability. Charity records reveal the motivations, benevolent and otherwise, behind assisted emigration of disabled people like Florence Aulph, deemed "surplus" in their home economies. Newspaper stories recount the physical conditions of immigration, from departure through settlement, often in a highly descriptive journalistic form that nicely contrasts with dryly official government reports of the same (and turn to the editorial pages for plenty of contemporary opinions about immigrant health issues). Oral histories and archives of oral interviews may also hold promise. The texts of political speeches, sermons, court decisions, and immigration laws bring other kinds of rhetoric into the array. And finally, photographs, short stories, poetry, songs, and other vernacular texts further enrich the vein of sources to be tapped by creative scholars.

Spatial, transnational, jurisdictional, state, neighborhood, rural/urban, and environmental dimensions in the history of immigration and disability offer geographers a wealth of potential projects; in turn, historical geographers bring a particular professional knowledge of spatial patterns, transportation, routes, networks, borders, diaspora, memory of place, and other distinctly geographic issues to the table. This paper offers only a few "points of entry," as an invitation to explore this rich subject further.

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