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Why Teach Disability History? 2023

Published on Wed, 02/08/2023

A photograph of the interior of an industrial shop. A man with dwarfism on a stool at a sits at a work station. His sleeves are rolled up on his button down shirt and he uses a band saw to cut out metal parts to be used in airplane motors.
Robert Hudson makes a valuable contribution to the nation's war progress despite disabilities. (1942). Ann Rosenor, photographer.

 "Why Didn't Anyone Teach Me This?" 

Reform to Equal Rights: K-12 Disability History Curriculum is now open!
Logo for Reform to Equal Rights: K-12 Disability History Curriculum



What does the photo at right of World War II defense worker Robert Hudson say to you? To two young adult disability advocates, it was transformative because it meant, "People with disabilities mobilized to defeat fascism in World War II, at the same time as women and African Americans." These young men knew what was at stake in 1942 for disabled people and everyone if the Nazis were to win. And they saw themselves in these defense workers. So the photo spoke to citizenship, community, making a contribution, and protecting people we love. They went on to ask, "Why didn't our school teach us this story?" and other stories across American history that accurately include people with disabilities. 

The #TeachDisabilityHistory campaign by Easterseals Massachusetts amply demonstrates the growing demand by people with disabilities to embrace and extend this history.  

State Standards

More states are incorporating disability history into standards. California’s 2011 Fair Education Act included people with disabilities among groups whose history must be taught. Other states including Maryland and Virginia followed. In 2018, new Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework integrated several pivotal developments in disability history, from Dorothea Dix to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. (Find a detailed list of Disability History standards and a mix of teacher-written lessons that address them in the Emerging America library of Teaching Resources.) New Jersey added disability history standards in 2020. 

Yet teaching the history of this large and vital group of Americans only begins with state content standards.

Already Teaching Disability History–But Backwards

In his essay, Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History, at the Disability History Museum, Dr. Douglas Baynton notes the, “reflexive deniability of disability among those seeking equality” across American history (including 19th century women and African-Americans, and the corresponding exclusion of immigrants with disabilities). His point in part is that schools have taught the history of disability all along–in this case, referring to undesirable traits of disabled people–yet with little thought. What are students with disabilities to think when they witness unquestioned acceptance of such arguments? 

Note that Disability History often emerges naturally with a modest recasting of the typical U.S. History narrative. For example, Antebellum reformers built schools for blind and Deaf students as well as struggling for Temperance, women's rights, and Abolitionism. A critical impact of war across American history has been the growth of both charities and government to meet needs of veterans. The ideology of Eugenics damaged people and communities across categories of race, gender, nationality, and ability. And civil rights movements emerged in concert after WWII among inter-related groups, including African-Americans, women, gays and lesbians, Latinos, Native Americans, and people with disabilities.  

People with Disabilities and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

What do we mean by culture when we speak of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP)? Appropriately grounded in her own community, Gloria Ladson-Billings (“But That’s Just Good Teaching: The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy”) conducted her landmark research on CRP in majority African-American schools. Certainly race, ethnicity, and gender have long driven promotion and support for culturally responsive teaching. Today, given our agency’s nearly 50 years of work in Special Education, we at Emerging America urge application of CRP with students with disabilities. These students belong to many communities–by geography, interest and activities–just like any students. Yet it is worth asking how students with disabilities can benefit from exploring the history and culture of people with disabilities. How might students gain from having the choice to act in solidarity with diverse cultures of other people with disabilities? 

(Join a discussion on CRP and disability in the Library of Congress TPS Teachers Network. You must join this free network to participate.) 

Empowerment through History and Civic Engagement

We must also add to the narrative of American history stories of disabled advocates for equal rights and analysis of their principles and methods. Take George Veditz, Deaf teacher who got ahead of a powerful new technology in 1913 by filming a speech about the value of preserving American Sign Language

Screen cap from a film of George Veditz wearing a suit and giving a speech in American Sign Language.
Preservation of Sign Language. Veditz.

In his 1977 speech celebrating successful advocacy for regulations to enforce Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, San Francisco activist and wheelchair user Ed Roberts declared: “Whenever we have brought ourselves together, whenever we have joined various disabilities together, we find our strength.” Roberts called not just for political change, but for outreach to “raise the consciousness of our fellow Americans with disabilities, to help them come out from the back wards, from the institutions, from the garbage heaps of our society.” Building on the successes with 504 and other struggles, this movement united across disability to win broad bi-partisan passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. For the first time in human history, people with disabilities won recognition as full and equal citizens under a nation's laws. 

Protests and advocacy by disability rights groups have won political influence and created communities of mutual support, from the 1988 “Deaf President Now” protests at Gallaudet University to the mobility rights movement and Autistic Self Advocacy Network. 

It is empowering for students with disabilities to investigate this history–and to correct the conventional historical record! It is vital for students to consider their own relationship to communities of people with particular disabilities or to the larger cross-disability movement. Students can also build success as they research and devise solutions to the needs of people with disabilities in their own schools and towns. 

Teaching Disability History through Primary Sources

In 2023, Emerging America published free, online: Reform to Equal Rights: K-12 Disability History Curriculum, to support teaching of this exciting and empowering history. The curriculum features 200+ primary sources in 23 inclusive, inquiry-based lessons. 

The Library of Congress has published a rich variety of 39 primary sources as Free to Use and Reuse: Disability Awareness, including the images of Hudson and Veditz on this page. 

Emerging America also created the free Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse of resources on teaching students with disabilities in History and Social Science. From there, work through the site to explore a wealth of effective strategies to challenge students with disabilities to succeed academically, to deepen their cultural competence, and to become civically engaged in their community. The clearinghouse features a portal to Disability History primary sources and lessons.

Finally, join a diverse group of educators in graduate courses and workshops in person and online on Disability History, Accessing Inquiry, and Accessing Civic Engagement. 

Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.