cover image A Disability History of the United States

A Disability History of the United States

Kim E. Nielsen. Beacon, $25.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8070-2202-3

This impressive, instructive book by Nielsen, a professor of history and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay (The Radical Lives of Helen Keller), seeks to define the pivotal role of people with disabilities in our nation’s past and their contribution to our laws, policy, economics, popular culture, and our collective identity. Disability, with its presumed need for dependency, challenges the American ideal of independence and autonomy. Nielsen uses various concepts of disability and dependency that go to “the heart of both human and American experience.” She accurately notes the difference of mind-body beliefs of the Native Americans from the Europeans who brought disease and death with them; the colonial definition of those considered insane or undesirable; and the many institutions housing the disabled. Nielsen does not sidestep the thorny issue of disabled war veterans, from the Revolutionary War through the Civil War to the present, with their surging costs and advances of laws protecting the rights of the disabled and guaranteeing accessibility in civilian life. Neilsen is at her best speaking not about the physically disabled and mentally ill, but of the legal and social barricades placed against women, minorities, and immigrants, who were classified “disabled” and blocked from full citizenship. (Oct.)