Beyond White Disability Studies

Endorsed by the Disability History Association (DHA)

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 12:45 PM - 1:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Disability Studies


In 2006, Chris Bell published “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal,” a critical assessment of the failures of scholars of disability to account for the experiences of African-Americans. Since then, a handful of scholars have earnestly taken up his challenge, but disability history remains undeniably centered on the lives and experiences of white people. This panel will advance the field of disability history by placing the experiences of Black disabled people at the center of the narrative. Historians have sought to grapple with the shifting social construction of disability as a category, closely studying how myriad conditions were understood to render one defective in distinct periods of U.S. history. By centering the experiences of disabled African-Americans, this panel will enhance our understanding of the disabled experience by elucidating how those doubly marked as other lived their lives amid intertwined social systems of marginalization. While acknowledging how the experience of disability in some ways transcended race, the panel will pay careful attention to the role that white supremacist structures in the South had in producing a fundamentally distinct disability experience for African-Americans. Beyond recovering the important narratives of people whose lives have been passed over for far too long due to institutional racism and ableism, this panel seeks to probe the important lessons about Southern history that can only be exposed through close attention to those who lived at the intersection of race and disability.

Papers Presented

Writing Their Place into History: Black Deaf Personal Accounts of Experiences in the South

The historical narrative of disability has traditionally been written through the lens of the white experience. There are, however, authors of color who have provided their stories and experiences of their struggle to gain an education as a deaf person. This paper will look at the importance and significance of how works push back against the historical narrative that does not provide a center stage for the African-American deaf experience. Sounds Like Home was written by Mary Herring Wright. Mrs. Wright, after losing her hearing at age ten, had to leave home to be educated at the North Carolina State school for the Deaf and Blind. It shows how segregation and racism created an almost impossible situation for deaf persons who wanted to be independent in a hearing world. This primary source documents the struggle and achievements made by African American deaf citizens during the period of the Depression and World War II. As important is the work of Mary Childress Brown, A Hearing Daughters Stories of Her Black Deaf Parents. She discusses the challenges of being Black and deaf and parents in Washington, D.C. from the lens of the hearing daughter who assisted in interpreting the world for them. These and other stories will provide a view into the lives of deaf African Americans and bring them in from the edges of the historical narrative.

Presented By
Sandra Jowers-Barber, University of the District of Columbia Community College

Jim Crow Education and the Formation of Racially Segregated Deaf Communities in Twentieth-Century Virginia

Deaf history has long argued that the American Deaf experience is defined by a shared Deaf culture and sign language. This paper problematizes this commonly held position by arguing that twentieth-century Virginia was home to racially distinct Deaf communities which developed in response to white Deaf acceptance of Jim Crow practices. Exploring the efforts of the Virginia Association of the Deaf (VAD) to improve the state’s white school for the Deaf reveals how segregationist racial ideology was not simply imposed by the state, but was internalized by the VAD and the broader white Deaf community. By examining the heretofore unexplored archives of the VAD and Virginia’s segregated residential schools for the Deaf, this paper centers race in the history of Deaf Americans, arguing against the universal Deaf experience to assert that race was central to the construction of Deaf community in the twentieth-century South. Utilizing oral histories conducted with students of the formerly Black Deaf school in Hampton, Virginia, this paper extends the common historiographical narrative about Deaf schools fostering local Deaf communities by showing how a distinct Black Deaf community developed around the school in response to isolation from the local Black population and racism from the white Deaf community. Exploring the experiences of Black Deaf people living in the Jim Crow South reveals how the Deaf experience was shaped by broader social forces and undermines the notion of a common Deaf culture.

Presented By
G Jasper Jasper Conner, The College of William & Mary

“You Won’t Know What It’s Like. . .”: Re-Positioning the Politics of Race and Disability in the Arizona Public Accommodation Battles of 1964

In 1964, presidential election politics and civil rights collided in Arizona leaving a lasting impression not only in the minds of those who lived in the state, but also resonated with those engaged in struggle nationwide. In June of that year, city council members and representatives of nearly thirty prominent organizations in Tucson held a spirited debate over a measure prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations. During the hearings, organization representatives and city councilmen engaged in long-winded discussions that lasted several days. The contentious debate among Tucson city council members ended with the governing body not only unanimously approving a measure that banned racial discrimination but it also included a progressive clause that addressed the challenges that their residents with disabilities faced in the city. The Tucson debate was similar to discussions that were taking place nationally. Yet these changes occurred in Republican Party Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater’s state of residence at the very moment that national politics were being reconfigured. My paper explores the ways in which local black residents fused disability to race, while advancing their claims for equality. It points up the need to complicate recent trends in the Modern Civil Rights Studies by expanding the definition of difference at a time when rights consciousness was indeed the watchword of the day. Only by doing this will we obtain a more comprehensive portrait of the issues and concerns that motivated people at the most local level and how they congealed into social and political struggles nationwide.

Presented By
Robert F. Jefferson Jr., University of New Mexico

Session Participants

Presenter: G Jasper Jasper Conner, The College of William & Mary
Jasper works on modern African American history, focusing on grassroots social movements in the South. He brings a decade of experience within social movements to this research which explores the mechanics of social change at the local level. After the birth of his youngest child, who is Deaf, Jasper expanded his research interests to include the understudied field of Black Deaf history.

Presenter: Robert F. Jefferson Jr., University of New Mexico
Robert F. Jefferson, Jr. is an Associate Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. Dr. Jefferson holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Michigan. He is the author of Fighting for Hope: African Americans and the Ninety-third Infantry Division in World War II and Postwar America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), Brothers in Valor: The Battlefield Stories of the 89 African Americans Awarded the Medal of Honor (Lyons Press, 2018), and Black Veterans, Politics, and Civil Rights in Twentieth Century America: Closing Ranks (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019). Dr. Jefferson is currently working on The Color of Disability: The Many Lives of Vasco Hale in Twentieth Century America. His articles on the relationship between African American GIs and their communities during the Second World War have appeared in Representations dans le monde anglophone (2018), The Routledge Handbook of the History of Race in the American Military (Routledge, 2016), Oral History and Public Memories (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), the Journal of Family History, the Annals of Iowa, Quaderni Storici (Bologna), Contours: A Journal of the African Diaspora, and the Historian. Dr. Jefferson is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. Most recently, he was selected by the J. William Fulbright Scholarship Board to serve as the Danish Distinguished Chair in American Studies for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Presenter: Sandra Jowers-Barber, University of the District of Columbia Community College
Dr. Sandra Jowers-Barber is the Director of the Division of Humanities and
Associate Professor of History at the University of the District of Columbia
Community College. Her BA, MA and PhD degrees are from Howard University.
Her research areas are African American women, disability and public and oral
history. She hosts UDC Forum, a cable television program featuring issues of
interest in higher education and the community.
Dr. Jowers-Barber is an expert on the 1952 Miller v. DC Board of Education case
that ended educational segregation of African American deaf children in the
District of Columbia. She has done research on educational policy for teaching
African American deaf students in Washington, DC. Her chapter, The Educational
Exile of Black Deaf Children in Washington, DC, in Gallaudet University’s A Fair
Chance in the Race of Life: The Role of Gallaudet University in Deaf History
documents the 20 th century challenges of African American deaf children in the
District of Columbia to be educated at Kendall School. She is the stepmother of
five adult children, one of whom is deaf and attended Kendall School. Dr. Jowers-
Barber is “Mimi” to her five grandchildren.
She is a member of the Association for the Study of African American Life and
History, the Association of Black Women Historians and the American Association
of Women in Community Colleges. Additionally, she is a commissioner for the
Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site Advisory Commission
and serves as a Historian Member of the DC Historical Preservation Review Board.

Commentator: Kim E. Nielsen, University of Toledo
Historian and Disability Studies scholar Kim Nielsen is Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo. Nielsen’s newest book, Money, Marriage, and Madness: The Life of Anna Ott will appear in summer 2020 (University of Illinois Press). Other books include The Oxford Handbook of Disability History (co-edited 2018), A Disability History of the United States (Beacon, 2012), Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller (Beacon, 2009) and The Radical Lives of Helen Keller (NYUP, 2004). Her journal publications include Signs, The Journal of Southern History, Rethinking History, and The Journal of Women’s History. In 2010 the Organization of American Historians honored Nielsen by appointing her a Distinguished Lecturer. Other awards include two Fulbright appointments, the 2007 A. Elizabeth Taylor Prize of the Southern Association of Women Historians, numerous teaching recognitions, and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. At UToledo she teaches courses on disability history, eugenics, law, and gender. She received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Iowa.