Disabling and Enabling Citizenship(s) in the Twentieth Century

Endorsed by the Disability History Association (DHA)

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Disability Studies


Throughout much of American history, disability placed individuals outside of what historian and legal scholar Barbara Young Welke calls the “borders of belonging.” Indeed, historian Douglas C. Baynton has demonstrated that disability served as a powerful tool to “justify inequality” in American history, shaping arguments for slavery, against women’s suffrage, and for immigration restrictions in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Further, he notes that social movements often refuted their association with disability in their push to gain full citizenship rights. Responding to the conference’s theme, this session will use the lens of disability to examine citizenship, its exclusions, and efforts to reshape the contours of the American democracy. As a starting point, presenters will analyze disability in four different contexts in twentieth-century United States history. Audra Jennings, Associate Professor of History at Western Kentucky University, will consider how the New Deal state’s efforts to provide medical care and various types of care labor for disabled Americans reflected New Dealers’ belief that disability served as a central cause of economic insecurity while also complicating their ideas about citizenship. Leah Samples, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, examines the precarious nature of citizenship for sightless Americans by examining blind men and women’s resistance to efforts by ophthalmologists to promote surgical interventions to restore sight through the federal Aid to the Blind program. Jess Waggoner, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston, reexamines the relationship between blackness and disability in the United States by analyzing the earliest issues of Ebony magazine from 19451950. Waggoner grapples with the magazine’s engagement with disability and the failed promises of democracy, particularly in the context of the importance of ablebodiedness to claims for citizenship. Finally, Sarah Rose, Associate Professor of History at University of Texas at Arlington, analyzes how newly deinstitutionalized people played a critical role in ADAPT/ADAPT of Texas grassroots efforts to first pass and then realize the protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act, paying particular attention to the tension between continuing questions about the citizenship status of individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities and the fierce activism of recently deinstitutionalized people for rights. Together, these presentations seek to facilitate a larger conversation, moderated by session chair Rabia Belt, Associate Professor of Law and Professor of History by Courtesy at Stanford University, whose current research examines disability, citizenship, suffrage, and the law in the United States between 1819 and 1920. Ultimately, this session will provide the foundation for an important conversation about disability, both as an analytical tool that can help historians to better understand citizenship and belonging in the American democracy and as an important but understudied aspect of the human experience. Through the critical lens of disability, this session seeks to illuminate the role both of disability in defining categories of exclusion and also disabled people’s work in expanding the rights of citizenship.

Papers Presented

The Disability Politics of Care and the New Deal State

By 1937, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) had provided in-home care labor to more than half a million families, often in disabled women’s homes. In 1936, it reported employing nearly 14,000 people on medical and dental projects, many of which aimed to prevent, cure, or mitigate disability. All told, the WPA launched numerous projects aimed at caring for disabled individuals and their families. As the New Deal Committee on Economic Security considered the “misfortunes which often result in destitution,” members pointed repeatedly to disability. Among the many policies that aimed to mitigate this perceived threat of insecurity, the Social Security Act provided federal funding to states for recording information about the prevalence of childhood disability, locating disabled children, and extending health care to them. This paper examines the complex politics of care that drove the development of these programs as well as disabled people’s experiences as the objects of care. State actors and reformers who led the charge for the Services for Crippled Children program described it as an investment in reducing dependency and preventing the development of a class of future “public charges.” This drive to reduce dependency also shaped programs that served disabled adults. The complex politics of care that emerged during the New Deal reflected the challenge that disability represented to New Dealers’ understanding of citizenship as well as their belief that disability served as a central cause of economic insecurity and a threat to national stability when the Great Depression was testing the limits of democracy.

Presented By
Audra Jennings, Western Kentucky University

Refusing to See in New Deal America and Beyond, 1930s–1940s

In 1938, a group of ophthalmologists who served in a supervisory capacity to state welfare departments for the administration of Title X of the Social Security Act, Grants to States for Aid to the Blind, came together in the nation’s capital to discuss their experiences with sightless Americans. Through their involvement with Title X, they concluded that a corrective program was necessary, where blind applicants would undergo sight restoration through surgery. Emboldened by their expert solution, ophthalmologists were bewildered when they encountered resistance to sight restoration surgery from the blind themselves. Applications for Aid to the Blind and the attendant correspondence between 19381944 reveal that there were many reasons why the blind resisted operations. First, not all aid recipients saw their lack of vision as debilitative. One recipient in Indiana, for example, voiced that “she did not think her failing vision was a handicap.” Second, some recipients feared treatment in the hospital either because they were not incredibly familiar with this type of curative space or because they were pessimistic about the surgical success of sight restoration. Finally, some people were afraid that they might lose their federal aid explaining that they preferred the security of their monthly funds over the possibility of restored sight. Through the unanticipated resistance to surgical solutions for sightlessness ophthalmologists experienced, this paper illuminates not only the precarious nature of citizenship for sightless Americans, but also the significance of blind men and women’s refusals, choices, and constraints within these statistical, medical, and legal infrastructures.

Presented By
Leah Samples, University of Pennsylvania

Re-imagining Black Disabled Citizenship through Ebony Magazine, 1945–1950

This paper will provide an alternative narrative of the relationship between blackness and disability in the U.S. by focusing on the earliest issues of Ebony magazine. Discussions of Ebony often indict its touting of consumerism as the answer to civic exclusion and its elevation of the black middle class. Beyond its status as a glossy lifestyle publication, Ebony was also a location for the public to process anxieties regarding black vulnerability, illness, and disability. From its incipiency in 1945 and well into the 1950s, the magazine featured manifold articles on disability, illness, risk, addiction, and assistive technology. Many of these articles portrayed black achievement and modeled racial uplift in tales of postwar triumph over physical disability. Ebony, however, tempered this optimism with bleak stories regarding tuberculosis, leprosy, medical segregation, and the absence of mental health resources. All point to a dissonance within the post-WWII promises of health and full citizenship purportedly afforded to the black ill and disabled. Ebony’s engagement with disability and the failed promises of democracy are particularly striking in light of the importance of ablebodiedness to claims for citizenship. I argue that demonstrating civic fitness through physical invulnerability was not the only way for African Americans to claim citizenship in the early 20th century. Rather, Ebony magazine produced a vision of black disabled mobility that departed from 1920s and 30s modes of evading disability. By visiting these sites of historical specificity and inviting these contradictions, we can cultivate a more multidimensional archive of black disabled life.

Presented By
Jess Waggoner, University of Houston

Making Our Citizenship Real: Deinstitutionalized People’s Disability Rights Activism with ADAPT

As Willowbrook State School, Rome Developmental Center, and other modern-day “idiot asylums” made infamous by Robert F. Kennedy and Geraldo Rivera began disgorging thousands of inmates in the 1970s, those individuals’ citizenship rights remained in question. People labeled as “idiots” had long served as quintessential legal examples of incompetency. Indeed, today, people placed under guardianship often lose voting rights, and courts allow families to sterilize relatives with intellectual/developmental disabilities without consent. Yet, this paper argues that ADAPT/ADAPT of Texas—arguably the most important grassroots disability rights organization from the 1980s on—made newly deinstitutionalized people’s activism key to ADAPT’s efforts to pass and make real the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Deinstitutionalized people served as crucial foot soldiers and planners in highly visible ADAPT actions now deemed essential for the ADA’s 1990 passage, including the Capitol Steps Crawl and occupations of HUD’s Atlanta buildings and the Capitol Rotunda in Washington DC. Post-1990, recently deinstitutionalized people, many of whom could neither read nor write, led ADAPT of Texas’s efforts to convince businessowners to put accessibility into practice—a project that helped to make Austin a national leader in accessibility. Such activists also “adopted” state legislators, visiting them weekly, which culminated in the first closures of Texas state-supported living centers. This paper draws on archival and legislative records, newspaper articles, and dozens of oral histories conducted for UT Arlington’s Texas Disability History Collection with Bob Kafka, Stephanie Thomas, Tom Olin, and other ADAPT/ADAPT of Texas activists as well as with state politicians.

Presented By
Sarah F. Rose, University of Texas at Arlington

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Rabia Belt, Stanford Law School
Rabia Belt is an Associate Professor of Law and Professor of History by Courtesy at Stanford University. At Stanford, she has also served as a faculty research fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and is affiliated faculty at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. She received her J.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and her A.B. from Harvard. Her scholarship focuses on disability and citizenship in the United States. She is at work on a book manuscript, Disabling Democracy in America: Disability, Citizenship, Suffrage, and the Law, 1819-1920. In 2016, President Obama appointed her as one of nine Council members on the National Council on Disability, the independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies regarding policies that affect people with disabilities.

Presenter: Audra Jennings, Western Kentucky University
Audra Jennings directs the Office of Scholar Development and serves as Associate Professor of History at Western Kentucky University (WKU), where she teaches the history of disability, medicine, and modern United States history. Her book, Out of the Horrors of War: Disability Politics in World War II America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), analyzes the ways in which the U.S. state at mid-century defined citizenship around notions of ablebodiedness by examining the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped, a national, cross-disability social movement organization that emerged during the war. She is currently writing a book, Insecurity: Disability, the Great Depression, and the New Deal State, that examines disability during the New Deal. As a transformative moment in the history of U.S. welfare policy, the New Deal propelled momentous state growth. Disability informed that growth, helping to define notions of insecurity and delineate divides between work and relief, while also serving as an object of state growth. The project explores how notions of disability informed New Dealers’ approaches to social security, work and relief, citizenship, labor standards, civil works, and children. Insecurity focuses on the driving forces, ideas, and people behind the New Deal, policy formation, and its consequences for the people who were the objects of these policies—disabled and non-disabled alike. The project has been funded by the National Science Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, the Roosevelt Institute, and Western Kentucky University’s Office of Research and Creative Activity, Potter College of Arts and Letters, and University College. Jennings has written articles that focus on how concern for health and safety inspired and shaped the U.S. labor movement, examine the dynamics of gender and disability, and analyze the medicalized politics of veterans’ health and disabled veterans’ activism in mid-century America. She is the recipient of the Disability History Association Outstanding Article Award and the James Madison Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government for her article "‘An Emblem of Distinction': The Politics of Disability Entitlement, 1940-1950," which appeared in The Politics of Veterans Policy: Federal Policies and Veterans in the Modern US, ed. Stephen R. Ortiz (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012). She has served three terms as Secretary of the Disability History Association and is currently chair of the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History.

Presenter: Sarah F. Rose, University of Texas at Arlington
Sarah F. Rose is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, where she directs the Minor in Disability Studies. She is also co-founder and faculty advisor for UTA Libraries’ award-winning Texas Disability History Collection, for which she and Trevor Engel co-curated the traveling Building a Barrier-Free Campus exhibit.

Her book, No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s-1930s, was published by University of North Carolina Press in 2017 and was awarded the 2018 Philip Taft Prize in Labor and Working Class History, 2018 Disability History Association Outstanding Book Award, 2017 Award for Excellence in Research Using the Holdings of the New York State Archives, and UT Arlington’s Outstanding Research or Creative Activity Achievement Activity Award.

Her and Joshua A. T. Salzmann’s essay, “Bionic Ballplayers: Risk, Profit, and the Body as Commodity, 1964-2007” was awarded the 2014-2015 best article prize for LABOR: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas. She has also published in the Journal of Policy History on disabled veterans’ access to the GI bill and higher education after World War II, on “‘Crippled’ Hands: Disability in Labor and Working-Class History” in LABOR, and on “Work” in the 2017 Keywords for Disability Studies volume.

Since 2013, Dr. Rose, UTA Libraries’ Special Collections, and UTA’s Public History program have been developing the Texas Disability History Collection (TDHC), which received the 2017 Society of American Archivists’ Diversity Award. The first disability history archive in the Southwest, the TDHC ranges from a 1493 map of the known world to the present, with digitized highlights available at http://library.uta.edu/txdisabilityhistory/. The TDHC covers the intersecting histories of assistive technologies, adapted sports, and disability rights as well as topics as diverse as nurses’ experiences in tuberculosis sanatoria, political iconography about Mexican dictator and amputee General Antonio López de Santa Anna, and the national impact of Texan disability rights campaigns.

Her and Trevor Engel’s traveling Building a Barrier-Free Campus exhibit (digitized at https://library.uta.edu/barrier-freecampus/ with full descriptive text at https://library.uta.edu/barrier-free/text) traces how UT Arlington became a model accessible campus for students with disabilities starting in the mid-1960s—a time when disabled students had no right to attend K-12 schools or college—and how disabled students and alums helped drive disability rights activism and adapted sports in Texas and beyond. It has appeared at the Texas State Capitol and UT Austin as part of Disability History Awareness Month, among nearly a dozen other venues.

She has presented at the Organization of American Historians, Society for Disability Studies, American Association for the History of Medicine, Policy History Conference, Labor and Working-Class History Association, and Business History Conference; and has given invited talks at Vanderbilt University, University of Kansas, Cornell University, NYU, and Swansea University, among other locations. She served on the OAH Committee on Disability and Disability History (2013-2018) and is a contributing editor for LABOR.

Dr. Rose received a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and earned her Ph.D. in History from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2008.

Presenter: Leah Samples, University of Pennsylvania
Leah Samples is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Her areas of interest include the history of disability, the body, medicine, and science in the mid-twentieth century. Leah is at work on two research projects. My dissertation, “SEE: The State, Science, and Sightlessness in New Deal America,” examines the management and construction of blindness in early-to-mid twentieth-century America from the New Deal to the end of World War II, focusing on the many imbrications between technical knowledge systems and federal policy toward the blind. To gain a comprehensive understanding of the constitution of blindness in America, this dissertation puts into conversation pivotal legislative moments for the blind like the passing of the Social Security Act of 1935, specifically Title X: Grants to States for Aid to the Blind, and the Barden LaFollette Act (Vocational Rehabilitation Amendments) with critical stakeholders like policymakers, social researchers, illumination engineers, ophthalmologists, and statisticians. My project expands the study of how technical knowledge became a feature for the management and production of disability, blindness in this case, for an array of professionals, experts, and even those with faulty sight themselves. I argue that we can use these historically situated scientific networks to draw the links between technical knowledge forms, legal infrastructures, and the body.

The other looks at the history of plastic surgery in the postwar period with a particular focus on Dr. Alma Dea Morani’s early professional career as the first woman plastic surgeon as a case study to better understand how surgical classifications, techniques, and technologies have expressed hierarchical ideas of gendered value. This is not only a story of professionalization but also a contestation of the fiction that is a neat binary system of gender; I argue that plastic surgeons like Morani, relied on the precarious relationship between reconstructive and cosmetic aspects of plastic surgery to assuage concerns about going under the knife because, in reality, the restoration of function was intimately tied to cosmesis for both patients and surgeons alike. It was this productive relationship between reconstructive and cosmetic, the visible tension, that allowed middle-aged women and men, injured factory workers, and the visibly disfigured to be confident that plastic surgery assured their postwar economic prosperity.

Presenter: Jess Waggoner, University of Houston
Jess Waggoner is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at the University of Houston. Waggoner earned their Ph.D. in English with a concentration in Gender Studies from Indiana University, Bloomington in 2016. Their research specializes in U.S. literature and culture, feminist disability studies, critical race studies, and queer theory. Waggoner’s first book project, Crip Activisms: Race, Gender and Disability Consciousness in U.S. Literature and Culture, 1900-1950, explores the intersection between emerging disability social movements in the early twentieth-century and experimental literature and culture. This interdisciplinary archival project seeks to disrupt dominant narratives of disabled life during this time, which tended to emphasize white disabled veterans, often to the exclusion of civilians, especially disabled women, queer people, and African Americans.

Spanning Afro-modernist protests of eugenic science and medical segregation, black women’s literatures of anti-psychiatry and anti-confinement, Ebony Magazine’s representations of African American access to medical technologies, and disabled women’s anti-ableist life writing, Crip Activisms examines the ways experimental creative production both facilitated and reflected a growing civilian disability consciousness. In contrast with understandings of disability and health care activism as relatively contemporary, Crip Activisms use a genealogical approach to demonstrate that disability consciousness existed vibrantly in the early twentieth century. By looking to these early forms of anti-ableism, Waggoner argues, we can develop a more expansive definition of disability activism that generates coalition building with anti-racist, feminist, and health care social movements in the present moment. This project has been supported by archival grants from Harvard’s Schelsinger Library, Smith College’s Sophia Smith Collections, and the Modernist Studies Association.

Their work has appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, Modernism/Modernity, and Modern Fiction Studies, and is forthcoming in the Routledge Companion to Disability and Literature. They are currently co-editing a special issue of The Journal of Feminist Scholarship with Dr. Ashley Mog on “Visionary Politics and Methods in Feminist Disability Studies,” which explores the methodologies of FDS and the ableisms of academic rigor.

Waggoner was the 2020 receipt of the Coordinating Council on Women in History’s Catherine Prelinger Award, to support the completion of their book project. In the Fall of 2021, Waggoner will begin a position as an Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.