The New Disability History

American Perspectives

422 pages

17 illustrations

March, 2001

ISBN: 9780814785645



Also available in


Paul K. Longmore is Professor of History and Director of the Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University and author of The Invention of George Washington

All books by Paul K. Longmore

Lauri Umansky is Professor of History at Suffolk University and is the author of The New Disability History: American Perspectives and "Bad Mother: The Politics of Blame in the Twentieth Century America

All books by Lauri Umansky

Disability has always been a preoccupation of American society and culture. From antebellum debates about qualification for citizenship to current controversies over access and reasonable accommodations, disability has been present, in penumbra if not in print, on virtually every page of American history. Yet historians have only recently begun the deep excavation necessary to retrieve lives shrouded in religious, then medical, and always deep-seated cultural, misunderstanding.

This volume opens up disability's hidden history. In these pages, a North Carolina Youth finds his identity as a deaf Southerner challenged in Civil War-era New York. Deaf community leaders ardently defend sign language in early 20th century America. The mythic Helen Keller and the long-forgotten American Blind People's higher Education and General Improvement Association each struggle to shape public and private roles for blind Americans. White and black disabled World War I and II veterans contest public policies and cultural values to claim their citizenship rights. Neurasthenic Alice James and injured turn-of-the-century railroadmen grapple with the interplay of disability and gender. Progressive-era rehabilitationists fashion programs to make crippled children economically productive and socially valid, and two Depression-era fathers murder their sons as public opinion blames the boys' mothers for having cherished the lads' lives. These and many other figures lead readers through hospital-schools, courtrooms, advocacy journals, and beyond to discover disability's past.

Coupling empirical evidence with the interdisciplinary tools and insights of disability studies, the book explores the complex meanings of disability as identity and cultural signifier in American history.


  • "This splendid collection opens up a whole new field. Longmore and Umansky define it, explain why it is urgent for us to know about it, and provide fourteen fine examples of it, ranging all across American history, by as many authors. This is not your father's old-time medical history—it's a broader, brilliant enterprise."

    —Walter Nugent, University of Notre Dame

  • "A cause for celebration. The insights popping off of each page are rich, compelling, and memorable. Taken together, these essays hold as much promise for remaking general understanding of the American past as pathbreaking works in women's history and African-American history. By bringing to center stage the experiences of so many who have been previously ignored or degraded, and by exploring how images of disability color American values and politics through time, this work invites students, scholars, and citizens to understand the world more deeply and more capaciously."

    —Martha Minow, Harvard University

  • "Historians of medicine and technology will find this book an interesting introduction to a highly politicized and novel area of scholarship. This work should inspire research projects into more diverse and less categorized areas of disability."

    Technology & Culture

  • "With this work, Longmore and Umansky offer historians, sociologists and other readers intrigued by this area of scholarship an opportunity to understand disabilities as broader and more complex than a single, generic and primarily medical category."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "The essays introduce into the historical record a diverse group of people whose views and experiences have been largely excluded, challenge conventional notions of bodily integrity, and represent an important new subfield in American history from which we can expect rich and exciting innovation."

    The Historian