Thursday, October 21, 2021

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

Published: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Beacon Press
Received: purchased
Read from September 10 to October 14, 2021

Synopsis from Goodreads:

The first book to cover the entirety of disability history, from pre-1492 to the present

Disability is not just the story of someone we love or the story of whom we may become; rather it is undoubtedly the story of our nation. Covering the entirety of US history from pre-1492 to the present, A Disability History of the United States is the first book to place the experiences of people with disabilities at the center of the American narrative. In many ways, it’s a familiar telling. In other ways, however, it is a radical repositioning of US history. By doing so, the book casts new light on familiar stories, such as slavery and immigration, while breaking ground about the ties between nativism and oralism in the late nineteenth  century and the role of ableism in the development of democracy.

A Disability History of the United States pulls from primary-source documents and social histories to retell American history through the eyes, words, and impressions of the people who lived it. As historian and disability scholar Nielsen argues, to understand disability history isn’t to narrowly focus on a series of individual triumphs but rather to examine mass movements and pivotal daily events through the lens of varied experiences. Throughout the book, Nielsen deftly illustrates how concepts of disability have deeply shaped the American experience—from deciding who was allowed to immigrate to establishing labor laws and justifying slavery and gender discrimination. Included are absorbing—at times horrific—narratives of blinded slaves being thrown overboard and women being involuntarily sterilized, as well as triumphant accounts of disabled miners organizing strikes and disability rights activists picketing Washington.

Engrossing and profound, A Disability History of the United States fundamentally reinterprets how we view our nation’s past: from a stifling master narrative to a shared history that encompasses us all.


This is the second book in the series ReVisioning American History, which seeks to tell the history of groups that have been underrepresented in most US history books despite their impact on the country. I reviewed the first book in the series, A Queer History of the United States, a while back, and some of what I said in that book holds true for this one as well.

It's true that disability history isn't told as much as it should be, and that needs to change. While this is a starting point, it can only really be a starting point. People with various disabilities have come together to form a disability movement because it makes them a more formidable force. Despite this, the "disability movement" remains a coalition of very diverse groups. It's just impossible to tell the full history of all of these groups in one book. You can't cover them all in that much detail.

As one individual, I definitely can't name every disability out there and decide if they got adequately covered in the book, but from my own personal perspective, it did seem like some groups got covered more than others. Deafness and physical disability (lost limbs in particular) seemed to be covered more than anything else. Other disabilities, such as blindness or some mental health disorders, seemed to be spoken about less often.

I did enjoy what history was there. I think the stories told in the book are stories that are important to talk about and are things people should know. In the end, though, I think it comes down to the same thing I said about A Queer History of the United States, this book is a starting point, but it's really only a starting point. What I would really love is a series of books that focus on specific disabilities and are therefore able to go more in depth about each of them, but I recognize that that isn't what this book was meant to be from the start. I'm sure books like that must exist somewhere, and I'll make an effort to find them, which I suppose is a positive outcome of having a book like this.

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