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Disability History through Primary Sources

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Helen Keller
Whitman Studio, photographer. (ca. 1904) Helen Keller, no. 8. , ca. 1904. October 28. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,


The integration of the history of people with disabilities into the curriculum benefits all students.  Recognizing the many roles of people with disabilities across time can be especially powerful for students who struggle in their own lives.  Students engage when they connect with history that reflects THEIR experiences.  Furthermore, disability history is increasingly recognized as vital to a full understanding of U.S. history, including in the 2018 Massachusetts standards. For further thoughts, watch a one-minute video clip, "Why focus on History of People with Disabilities?" and read the essay Why Teach Disability History?   

Primary sources from the Library of Congress, the Disability History Museum, and other collections can provide entry points and deepen exploration into historical events. Primary sources add immediacy, such as the faces in a photograph, the emotional tone of a drawing or song, or the complex look of a handwritten document. Documents from multiple points of view can illuminate conflicting ideas and events. Varied media, including maps, oral histories, published reports, and graphs offer many options for connection and investigation. Guided video tips and for finding primary sources building primary source sets are in our Teaching Resources. Also see the Library of Congress research Guide for Middle and High School Students


Download teacher-developed Model Lessons on Disability History that directly address content in the 2018 Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework. For support in understanding of the scope and flow of Disability History, see Disability History Timelines.


Primary Sources on Disability History

Explore–including a brief overview of the topic–in this Disability History primary source set from Emerging America.

  • The wholly online Disability History Museum offers hundreds of primary sources, background essays, and other resources. The museum examines the people, lives, and institutions of disability from the founding of the nation to today. Looking across disabilities and ages, the site aims to help all users deepen understanding of variation and difference in national and community life.


Crossover Themes of Disability History

State history standards and textbooks across the U.S. commonly emphasize a similar structure of topics in history. Even in states that do not yet explicitly list Disability History as a topic to be covered, the following themes offer places where teachers can integrate key moments and concepts of Disability History.

  • Homes Almshouses (Pre-History – 1900) – People with Disabilities in Traditional Communities 
  • Founding of Schools and of Asylums – (1820-1860) Antebellum Reform Movements
  • Civil War Veterans – (1861-1900) Impacts of Civil War / Growth of Federal Government
  • WWI Veterans – (1917-1932) Progressive Era / Propaganda / Impacts of WWI
  • Important consequences of the Industrial Revolution (1880-1940) – Influence of Social Darwinism and Eugenics
  • Social Security Disability – (1933-1977) Progressive Era / New Deal / Responsibilities of Private Sector vs Government
  • Civil Rights include Disability Rights – (1962-1990) Cold War Era Social Protests
  • Passage of the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act (IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) 


Selected Publications on Disability History

Readings to introduce key concepts of Disability History.

Other Selected Collections and Publications on Disability History

Field hospital with 6 beds, soldiers in casts, slings, and in beds.
Model Lessons on Disability History

A collection of 15 lesson plans with a range of disability history topics, written with accessibility in mind. 

Upcoming Workshops

Course runs Nov-Dec 2021, and introduces exemplars of best practice pedagogy for English Learners in History and Social Studies classrooms. It demonstrates dual…
Join us November 3 from 4:00 - 5:30 pm for an Introduction to Elementary Inquiry using History’s Mysteries. Register Here The Introduction webinar will also b…
This online course will harness current events to deepen understanding of immigration across American history, from the founding of the nation through today. L…