Disability and American Ideals

A Disability History of the United States

By Kim Nielsen

From Beacon Press

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Which peoples and which parties have been considered fit and appropriate for public life and active citizenship? How have people with disabilities forged their own lives, their own communities, and shaped the United States? How has disability affected law, policy, economics, play, national identity, and daily life? The answers to these questions reveal a tremendous a mount about us as a nation.

When “disability" is this considered to be synonymous with “deficiency“ and “dependency," it contrasts sharply with American ideals of independence and autonomy. Thus, disability has served an effective weapon in contests over power and ideology. For example, at varying times, African Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, poor people, and women have been defined categorically as defective citizens incapable of full civic participation.

In this version of the national story, independence is good and dependency is bad. Dependency means inequality, weakness, and reliance on others.

When disability is equated with dependency, disability is stigmatized. Citizens with disabilities are labeled inferior citizens. When disability is understood as dependency, disability is posited in direct contrast to American ideals of independence and autonomy.

from A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielsen, pp. xi-xiii.

About the Author

Kim Nielsen

Kim E. Nielsen is an award-winning educator, the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities We the People stipend, a Fulbright lecturer, the author of many journal articles, and frequent public speaker. Her books include Helen Keller: Selected Writings (2005), The Radical Lives of Helen...

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