American history examined sensitively and skillfully from the bottom up, grounded in the often shabby and sometimes exemplary treatment of disabled individuals.
Nielsen’s (History and Women’s Studies/Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay; The Radical Lives of Helen Keller, 2004, etc.) interest in the treatment of the disabled began with research into the political activism of Helen Keller, perhaps the most famous of severely disabled Americans. The author organizes the book chronologically, beginning with the handling of disabled women and men by Native Americans. The disability spectrum within indigenous North American cultures expanded in unwelcome ways as European settlers spread disease among the Indians. Nielsen then moves on to the stories of newly arrived immigrants from Europe and Africa who were not fully functional physically or mentally. "Disability" has always been an elastic term; Nielsen explains how the definitions solidified in the legal and social sense in the 19th and 20th centuries. The definitions would deprive many individuals of full citizenship rights as institutionalization became a trend. That institutionalization fell disproportionately on the enslaved (usually but not always because of skin color), women and those individuals sometimes inaccurately characterized as lunatics or idiots. In a slightly more upbeat chapter, Nielsen explains how those marked as disabled slowly banded together to fight for their civil rights. Slowly, individuals with potential, despite being branded, began to receive educational and vocational opportunities. The final chapter marks the year 1968 as the beginning of improved understanding and enlightened policies. Individuals previously kept out of sight and mind began to enter the mainstream culture.
A lively historical record that fills a gap in the literature.