Weighing in at nearly ten pounds, with more than 350 contributors, over 750 articles, and an expansive bibliography and timeline spread over 1,049 pages, the Encyclopedia of American Disability History is a monumental achievement. Susan Burch and her many contributors, colleagues, and consultants — with the help of the folks at Facts on File — have created a foundational text in the fields of Disability Studies and Disability History.

Organized into 3 volumes and anchored by 12 thematic essays, the Encyclopedia of American Disability History offers a panoramic view of the collective experience of a broad range of people living with an equally expansive number of disabilities from colonial times to the present. As Burch writes in her introduction, the encyclopedia's many articles and short essays, as well as its extensive timeline, provide the reader with a "textual landscape painting" of the American experience with disability. The beauty of this valuable reference tool are its many and varied entries that cover everything from Doonesbury and Dr. Strangelove to Huntington's disease and Miss Deaf America; from Social Security and Star Wars to Edouard Seguin and Junius Wilson; from the Smith-Fess Act to the Nuremburg Principles. Packed within the pages of the Encyclopedia of American Disability History are stories of people living, loving, organizing, protesting, working, fighting, building, teaching, learning, hurting and dying; stories of people who refused to be defined solely by their disability, who fought for their civil rights, and who in some cases refused to let others define them at all; people who, in short, embraced what it means to be both human and American. Alongside the encyclopedia's wealth of factual information that will no doubt be useful for years to come are powerful tales of a broad range of historical actors who, for better or for worse, made the United States the country that it is today. This, as Burch alludes to in her introduction, is a social history of disability.

The encyclopedia's 12 anchor essays, which highlight the most commonly addressed areas of interest among disability studies scholars and disability historians, form a strong narrative backdrop for the rich vistas explored in the work's numerous entries. Covering advocacy, community, daily life, disability art and artistic expression, disability culture, education, employment and labor, identity, language and terminology, law and policy, representation, and science and technology the short essays tread well-worn, but infinitely abundant paths. Here one will find the stories, names, and concepts that comprise the meta-narrative of American Disability History — Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads, the League of the Physically Handicapped, the "feebleminded," Public Law 94-142, the March of Dimes, Randolph Bourne, Warm Springs, Hellen Keller, asylums and residential schools, Clifford Beers, Very Special Arts, and TTY, among others. Here too, one will find interesting little gems such as the history of the origins of the Jacuzzi, which even the most well-read among us may have missed, and which speaks to the depth to which disability is imbedded in our collective (un)consciousness. Part of the strength of the 12 anchor essays, but perhaps a deterrent to less ambitious readers, is their significant amount of overlap, which on a practical level can be beneficial, especially to young researchers. When read together and in their entirety the essays provide the reader with a keen sense of the development of an historical canon.

As Burch suggests in her introduction, this encyclopedia is most effective and best utilized when readers mine a topic fully, using the three volumes' many cross-references, which are embedded in the text and listed at the end of each entry. Readers who take the time to explore several related articles will find themselves opened to the many nuances that make disability history such a fascinating and important part of the American experience. Individuals, events, and organizations once ignored, forgotten or otherwise relegated to the margins of our collective memory leap to life and take their well deserved place at the center of the rich mosaic that makes up America's past.

The publication of the Encyclopedia of American Disability History could not be more timely. On April 3, 2006, West Virginia became the first state to implement Disability History Week legislation, which has as its central aim the incorporation of disability history education into the K-12 curriculum. Originally spearheaded by Dr. James Boles, CEO of People, Inc., western New York's largest service provider to people with disabilities and founder of the Museum of disABILITY History, the only brick and mortar museum of its kind in the world, the "Disability History Week Movement" has been spreading to states throughout the country. As of this writing, 24 states, including West Virginia and New York (the home of People, Inc. and the museum) have passed some variation of disability history week legislation. The Encyclopedia of American Disability History will be an invaluable tool to K-12 educators as they begin to integrate disability history into their curriculum. In addition to K-12 educators, students at all levels, including post-secondary, will find this encyclopedia interesting and immensely informative. Finally, as disability studies and disability history spread to colleges and universities throughout the world, an increasing number of post-secondary educators are integrating disability history into lectures and other course materials. The Encyclopedia of American Disability History will no doubt prove useful in these endeavors as well.

Susan Burch and her many contributors, colleagues, and consultants have accomplished an amazing and impressive feat with the publication of the Encyclopedia of American Disability History. It itself is an historical achievement and will continue for many years to be the standard by which all similar projects are measured. Popular historian and writer, William Loren Katz once said, "If you believe people have no history worth mentioning, it's easy to believe they have no humanity worth defending." Burch and her colleagues have gone a long way in reclaiming disabled people's humanity and their history.

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Copyright (c) 2010 Michael A. Rembis



Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)