DISABILITY HISTORY THROUGH PRIMARY SOURCES
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 Library of Congress offers many relevant collections. Start with these portals and posts.
- Veterans History Project page on disability
- PTSD: A Lasting Impact of War
- WWI: Injured Veterans and the Disability Rights Movement
- Chronicling America news articles on Eugenics and on Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement
- Chronicling America news articles on Helen Keller
- Through the National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Library of Congress has offered services to make libraries accessible since 1931. Explore the history of the NLS.
- Library of Congress online exhibits, including Louis Braille: His Legacy and Influence.
- The Teaching with the Library of Congress blog offers a searchable resource of introductions to a wide variety of topics. See, for example, the post on the history of lobotomies, “Using Historic Newspapers to Study Accounts of a Now-Abandoned Medical Procedure,” and the post on letters submitted by two African American veterans who had lost use of their right hands in the Civil War, “…Left Handed Penmanship Contests, 1865-1867".
- Professional Development Webinars and Workshops from the Library of Congress include the June 3, 2020 presentation from Emerging America, "Reflecting on Using Primary Sources to Meet the Needs of Diverse Learners". (Library of Congress link directly to the webinar).
- 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.
- Argetsinger, J., & Q. LaLonde. (2020). “Disability History: What contributed to a growing understanding and awareness of people with disabilities?” Introductory essay and Primary Source Set from EmergingAmerica.org, revised and updated. http://emergingamerica.org/resource/disability-history/
- Baynton, D. (2001). “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” Disability History Museum. http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=70
- Bober, T.. (2020). Picture Books and Primary Sources: All the Way to the Top [How One Girl's Fight for Americans with Disabilities Changed Everything] by Annette Bay Pimentel and Nabi H. Ali. 5/21/2020 Blog post on web site of KnowledgeQuest: Journal of the American Association of School Librarians. https://knowledgequest.aasl.org/picture-books-and-primary-sources-all-the-way-to-the-top-by-annette-bay-pimentel-and-nabi-h-ali/
- Nielsen, K. E. (2012). A disability history of the United States(Vol. 2). Beacon Press.
- Lederle, Cheryl. (2019) "Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, and a Wind Gauge." Library of Congress. Retrieved 1/2/2020. https://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2019/10/helen-keller-alexander-graham-bell-and-a-wind-gauge/
- Wesson, Stephen. (2017) "An Ode to Autumn by a Writer in the Spring of her Career." Library of Congress. Retrieved 1/2/2020. https://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2017/10/an-ode-to-autumn-by-a-writer-in-the-spring-of-her-career/?loclr=blogtea
- Wesson, Stephen. (2013) "Alexander Graham Bell, Educator." Library of Congress. Retrieved 1/2/2020. https://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2013/05/alexander-graham-bell-educator/?loclr=blogtea
Other Selected Collections and Publications on Disability History
- Disability History Museum - (see description above) primary sources, essays and curricula.
- Disability History/Archives Consortium
- Online collections include:
- The Disability History/Archives Consortium (DH/AC) is a national collaboration that aims to promote the integration of collections, preservation, access, and the development of education resources about disability history broadly defined. Published quarterly, each edition features news from leading local, state, and national museums and archives with collections on disability history, including those listed above. See a partial list of DH/AC members from the Society of American Archivists.
- National Museum of American History - online exhibits on Disability History
- National Park Service - Disability History Series.
- It's Our Story - Video, photo, and multi-media presentations on the life of people with disabilities today. Includes Hall of Fame blog posts for various disabilities. Also YouTube clips of Disability Rights activists.
- One Out of Five: Disability and Pride Project (Washington)
- Curriculum and materials for teachers to use to teach about disability (including a disability history primary source timeline activity and a primary source set illustrating broad topics with local examples, from eugenics to laws on respectful language)
- Student Voice Videos - 6 short films featuring the voices and perspectives of students with disabilities with English and Spanish subtitles.
- Rooted in Rights (Seattle-based) - blog on Disability History and Culture
- Disability History Association - Digital Resources List
- Museum of disABILITY History - formerly a physical museum, their website has exhibits and lesson plans
- Facing History and Ourselves - offers a couple of thoroughly resources lessons on Eugenics in the U.S. and on the Nazi persecution and systematic murder of people with disabilities.
- Citizen U - among the multidisciplinary civics lessons featured are a PBS Newshour lesson on the role of the press in activism featuring the 19th c. mental health reform movement galvanized by Dorothea Dix and Nellie Bly.
- Activists Movements Since 1970 - Grades 9-12 Model Curriculum Unit published by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Compares multiple post-WWII rights movements. Features the documentary film The Great Fight for Disability Rights.