Bonus Reading: “A Disability History of the United States” by Kim E. Nielsen

Bonus Reading: A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen

List Progress: 31/30

The disabled are the one minority group that anyone can become a member of, at any time. While many are born disabled, no one is more than an illness, a car crash or old age away from being among their numbers. But despite this all-encompassing scope, disabled people are often written out of the history books, under the assumption that they cannot contribute anything meaningful to the course of history. Kim E. Nielsen seeks to reject that notion with A Disability History of the United States, a general survey of disabled people’s role in society, from pre-colonial times to the present day. It is a fascinating and occasionally horrifying telling of a very under-explored facet of national history, but “general” is a key word when describing this book.

A Disability History is covering six hundred years of history in under two hundred pages, so there was always going to be some skimming happening. The chapters follow different eras of disability life and care, from family and home care to institutionalization to the disability pride movement, with individual case histories included to illustrate Nielsen’s points. This is a good book for giving the general flow of this topic, and guiding readers on how to narrow their scope for their own research. There is also a valiant effort to illustrate the intersections of privileges for the disabled, how native populations, black people and immigrants had very different experiences of disability than middle- to upper-class white people. 

The one omission that stood out to me was populations who are completely unable to work. From about the 1960’s onwards, the focus of the public discourse, and therefore the text, was on disabled people fighting for their right to work and be financially-contributing members of society. Perhaps it is my bias, as I live with a social security lawyer, but I was curious about the role of the people who genuinely could not work for wages, those who are restricted to their homes, beds or hospital rooms. But again, this is a less-than two hundred page book, and it’s not like society as a whole does a good job of remembering the severely disabled.

I am glad A Disability History of the United States exists, and it is good at what it does: offering a broad overview , hopefully to spark the reader’s interest to learn more. I am glad I read it, but I certainly didn’t come away feeling like an expert on anything.

Would I Recommend It: Yes. 

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