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Disability History through Primary Sources

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


Reform to Equal Rights: K-12 Disability History Curriculum - 23 lessons in 7 units using 250+ primary sources. 

Screen cap from the game Civics! An American Musical with diverse cartoon figures standing on a stage.

New and exciting: Civics! An American Musical - online game module on the ADA: Inclusion Is a Civil Right - Fablevision Studios




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? (Updated in 2023).  

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.


How can teachers address disrespectful terms related to disability in primary sources? See the Teacher Resource: Time Out – Spotlight Offensive Language in Primary Sources. Also see the Know and Support Students page.    

- Rich Cairn, Emerging America


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 and Almshouses (Pre-History-1900) – Life in Colonial America - The Early Republic 
  • Founding of Schools and Asylums (1820-1860) – Antebellum Reform Movements
  • Disabled Civil War Veterans (1861-1900) – Impacts of the Civil War - Growth of the Federal Government
  • Consequences of the Industrial Revolution and Immigration (1880-1940) - Impact of Social Darwinism and Eugenics 
  • Rehabilitation of WWI Veterans and Social Security (1917-1932) – Progressive Era - Impacts of WWI - New Deal - Responsibilities of Private Sector vs Government
  • Civil Rights including Disability Rights (1945-1990) – Cold War Era Social Movements
  • Passage of the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act (IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (1977-1990) – Contemporary Challenges


Disability History Curriculum


Primary Sources on Disability History

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

Library of Congress


Disability History Museum

  • 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.


Further Collections and Resources on Disability History

Selected Readings 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

Elevate Voices of Disabled Advocates through Primary Sources & Inquiry (Friday 1:20pm), What do ESL teachers wish you knew? (Saturday, 8:15am).
This one-hour workshop empowers Special Education teachers to foster supportive attention to disability and to support integration of disability history across…
Social Studies and Humanities pose distinct challenges for struggling learners. Extensive discipline-specific vocabulary, difficult informational texts –includi…