Disability History Series Introduction

“We all have the power to create our own stories, and in particular for disability, I choose to believe that alternative techniques are equal in value to mainstream techniques, so from everything in my life from reading to public speaking I’ve found alternative techniques that allow me to access information in a different way, but that different way is equal in value to mainstream way of doing things.” - Haben Girma, Disability Rights Activist and first Deafblind Graduate of Harvard Law School [1]

Statue of President FDR in a wheelchair.
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial by Robert Graham.

Photo by Ingfbruno (CC BY-SA 3.0;

The Telling All Americans’ Stories (TAAS) Disability History series brings attention to some of the many disability stories interwoven across the National Park Service’s 400+ units and its programs. “Disability stories” refer to the array of experiences by, from, and about people with disabilities represented across our nation. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the United States, but their stories often remain untold. By exploring the histories associated with different national parks, National Historic Landmarks, and listings in the National Register of Historic Places, this series aims to highlight a number of threads from the varied and complex narratives of American disability history. This series is organized around themes stretching across the past three centuries. These themes include Early and Shifting Attitudes of Treatment, Educational Reform, Military and Disability, Presidents and Disability, the Disability Rights Movement, and the National Park Service and Accessibility.

How does the National Park Service define disability? We follow the federal government’s definitions of disability. A person with a disability is typically someone who (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more “major life activities,” (2) has a record of such an impairment, or (3) is regarded as having such an impairment. More information on disability definitions can be found at the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is the largest piece of civil rights legislation in recent years that protects people with disabilities. Titles I-III of the ADA address employment, state and local governments, and public accommodations and commercial facilities. In 2008, the ADA was revised and is referred to as the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act. More information on the ADA can be found at the U.S. Department of Justice ADA website. Other critical laws require the federal government to ensure access, including the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.

Disability history does not follow a single, chronological thread. Instead, it is a flow of simultaneous triumphs and struggles. This series highlights some of the strides we have made in the United States towards disability rights, services, and independence. It also explores how members of the disability community and the disability rights movement connect and intersect with other social movements and communities. Disability-related sites and stories reflect changing and evolving attitudes about people with disabilities, by people both with and without disabilities. These articles and places, however, only scratch the surface of American disability history.

In the article Early and Shifting Attitudes, we learn how people with disabilities were placed, often involuntarily, in almshouses and poorhouses in the late 1700s and early 1800s. These facilities, such as the Johnson County Poor Farm and Asylum, were often filthy and poorly managed. From the mid- to late 1800s, healthcare advocate Dorothea Dix stepped forward and demanded changes to the system. She and others pushed for psychiatric institutions that would treat people with disabilities humanely and with dignity. Psychiatric and “mental” hospitals spread across the country by the mid-1800s; they, too, eventually faced scrutiny due to inadequate care and mistreatment. Since the second-half of the 1900s, many psychiatric hospitals have been shut down in favor of alternative programs or state-funded services for people with disabilities.

The article, Educational Reform depicts how schooling and education for people with disabilities developed in the 1800s. Prior to this time, students with disabilities did not have the opportunity for separate or specialized education to fit their needs. The 1800s witnessed the emergence of school options for children and adults with disabilities. Samuel Gridley Howe helped to established the Perkins Institution for the Blind in the 1830s, while Gallaudet University, serving deaf students, opened in 1864.

There are some schools and psychiatric institutions whose practices we today regard as cruel or inappropriate. Many medical practices prior to the late 1900s were inhumane. The charity and medical models of disability throughout the 1800s and early 1900s drove caregivers’ attitudes that people with disabilities were victims in need of cure and incapable of making their own decisions. With the shift to social and rights-based models throughout the 1900s and 2000s, people with disabilities have shifted the focus from the belief that they need treatment for their perceived impairments to the ways in which society further disables them.

For much of American history, decisions for people with disabilities were made by parents, physicians, politicians, and caregivers. The Disability Rights Movement article introduces the legislative successes and communities of individuals with disabilities who pushed for their rights and independence. The concept embedded in the slogan, “Nothing about us without us,” emerged in the 1980s and grew in popularity in the 1990s among disability rights activists. This concept highlights the desire of individuals with disabilities to represent their own interests. A number of places are associated with this history, including Cowell Memorial Hospital and Gallaudet University.

The article, Military and Disability, shows how our nation’s veterans have received treatment and support following their service. Beginning in 1865, the federal government established Veterans Affairs National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Since that time, many options have become available for treatment of soldiers with disabilities.

In 1962, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of President John Kennedy, published an article called “Hope for Retarded Children” in the Saturday Evening Post. Though the wording of this article is now outdated, it was an important contribution to disability literature. It acknowledged that the president had a sister, Rosemary, with a disability. Presidents, too, live and have lived with disabilities. The article, Presidents and Disability, provides an overview of the complicated legacies of presidents and how they have chosen to depict (or not to depict) their disabilities.

Finally, the article,National Park Service and Accessibility, explores how the National Park Service interprets the history of people with disabilities at specific parks. The article describes both laws and goals of the National Park Service to make parks accessible.

This series focuses on telling selected stories through historic places. It offers a glimpse into the rich and varied history of Americans with disabilities. However, the National Park Service recognizes the absence of certain parts of disability history from these articles. Some of these histories are more challenging and require more space than is available in each of these articles. The National Park Service wants to honor these histories, but does not want to do injustice by simply skimming the surface of their complexities. Still, these stories deserve brief mention. Some of the disability stories missing from the articles include:

  • Inclusion of people with AIDS in the Americans with Disabilities Act: After much debate within federal government in 1990, it was decided that AIDS would be recognized by the ADA, meaning discrimination against people with AIDS was prohibited in all areas of public life.
  • Race and Disability: People of color were often placed in segregated psychiatric institutions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These hospitals and asylums rarely followed the rule of “separate but equal.”
  • Women and Disability: Women have faced discrimination based on misguided beliefs of their intellect and capability throughout American history. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were several cases of women who were institutionalized at psychiatric hospitals. Some of these diagnoses included promiscuity and hysteria, which physicians often blamed on heredity, country of origin, or education.
  • Immigration and Disability: There are many accounts of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island and other entrance stations, only to be turned away due to their perceived “disabilities.” Certain populations were regarded as more “inferior” or “defective” than other groups. This kind of categorization led to the Immigration Act of 1924, which relied on quota systems to cap the number of immigrants from various countries of origin, and similar legislation.

The Disability History series serves as a foundation for understanding broad ideas in American disability history. For additional information of disability history, please visit some of these online exhibits: EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America, Patient No More, and the Disability History Museum.

Article by Perri Meldon.

This article is part of the Telling All Americans’ Stories Disability History Series. The series focuses on telling selected stories through historic places. It offers a glimpse into the rich and varied history of Americans with disabilities.

[1] Morin, Joshua. "Watch Featured Speaker, Haben Girma, from the 2017 Annual Meeting," Alliance Labs [American Alliance of Museums], July 12, 2017.

Part of a series of articles titled Disability History: An Overview.

Last updated: March 19, 2024