Disability History - Stories That Tell Who We Are

When a social advocacy movement achieves a coherent and widely-acknowledged identity, it often begins to investigate and claim its history. The disability rights and independent living movement in America, having arrived at this point by the 1990s, is compiling a fascinating historical record of people with disabilities.

"History," said Thomas Carlyle, "is the essence of innumerable biographies." Thus, groups like the Disability Social History Project chronicle the lives of famous and not-so-famous people with disabilities: Harriet Tubman, hero of the Underground Railroad; John Wesley Powell, explorer and geologist; Dorothea Lange, photographer; Frida Kahlo, artist; and Audre Lorde, Poet Laureate of New York State.

The Disability Social History Project, based in Oakland, California, describes itself as "an opportunity for disabled people to reclaim our history and determine how we want to define ourselves and our struggles. People with disabilities have an exciting and rich history that should be shared with the world." For more information, visit the Project's web site.


Institutions not overtly related to the disability civil rights movement have joined in this pursuit of historical research. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, in a display called The Murder of the Handicapped, reports that "more than 200,000 handicapped people were murdered between 1940 and 1945" in Germany. The story of the Nazi Party’s frightening program of euthanasia targeting people with disabilities is remembered on the Museum’s web site.

Another public institution that has responded to the call for historical research is National Public Radio. Its four-part series, Beyond Affliction: The Disability History Project, revealed "the shared experience of people with disabilities and their families since the beginning of the nineteenth century." The series considered the relationship between charity and disability, new and old ideas about social programs, the evolution of disability identity, and the effects of reproductive technology on people with disabilities.


Two new exhibits are being developed in anticipation of the ten-year anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 2000. The ADA Wisconsin Partnership has stimulated the State Historical Society to create a display showing how life has changed for people with disabilities. "Sometimes progress comes from simple things," says Jerry Vogt, the Partnership’s ADA Specialist. "One picture in the exhibit could show a city street corner years ago. Next to that would be a recent photo of the same corner with curb cuts. In the second picture, we notice a man shopping independently using a wheelchair. You can see the progress."

In Washington, DC, the National Museum of American History plans an exhibit about ADA and the disability rights movement "as a long, ongoing struggle for basic civil rights." In addition to acquiring disability-related objects for display, the curators are collecting anecdotes through a nationwide survey. The exhibit is an outgrowth of the National Museum’s two-day conference last May on Disability and the Practice of Public History.


"Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put stories in each other’s memories." From Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez, cited in "Wisconsin Stories: Lessons of Community Life from People with Developmental Disabilities" (Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, 1993).

Why document the lives of people with disabilities? Because finding and telling our stories helps us achieve a sense of wholeness. Because knowing where we’ve been helps us avoid the mistakes of the past. Or think of it this way: If Americans today knew nothing of how people lived in 1776, how would we understand why they were willing to invest so much to achieve independence?


Disability Social History Project
255 Third Street, #202
Oakland, CA 94607

The Cinema of Isolation:
A History of Physical Disability in the Movies

by Martin Norden
(Rutgers University Press, 1994)

Last Revised: October 7, 2016