5 of the best introductory books to the history of disability in the United States

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I’m not a historian, but I like to do research. I also constantly think about how ableism affects my life and the lives of other people with disabilities. I like academic and popular history books with lots of quotes and bibliographies. History books often omit that Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, and many other important historical figures were disabled. This list is not exhaustive, of course, but these disability history books in the United States show how racism, anti-LGBTQIA prejudice, ableism and sexism intersect.

A history of disability in the United States

A History of Disability in the United States by Kim E. Nielsen

Full Disclosure: I was an Editorial Intern at Beacon Press when they published this paperback book in 2013, and I interviewed the author for the Beacon Blog. However, most educators agree with me that this book belongs to almost every disability history program.

The second book in Beacon’s Revisioning History series, this is an overview of disability in what is now the United States from before 1492 to the present day. You may not have known the extent of ableist laws in U.S. history: eugenics, sterilization programs, ugly institutions and laws, which punished people with certain disabilities for appearing in public. The book also covers the protests that led to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and subsequent civil rights law, the Americans with Disabilities Act, in 1990.

The intrepid Benjamin Lay blanket

The fearless Benjamin Lay: the dwarf Quaker who became the first revolutionary abolitionist by Marcus Rediker

Lay was one of the first white abolitionists in the United States. He often protested against slavery. In 1737, Benjamin Franklin published Lay’s only book: All Slave-Keepers That Keep the Innocent in Bondage, Apostates. Lay was also an opponent of the death penalty and an early advocate of ethical vegetarianism. His work revolutionized his colonial community of Quakers in Pennsylvania, who then united to oppose slavery.

An unimportant woman by Sonia Purnell

An unimportant woman: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win WWII by Sonia Purnell

Some editions are alternately subtitled: The untold story of Virginia Hall, WWII’s most dangerous spy. Virginia Hall was a commander of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) and the French Resistance, so many believed she was from Europe. She actually came from a wealthy family in Maryland. His leg was amputated after a hunting accident. As a woman with a disability, she has constantly faced gender and ableist discrimination. A brilliant organizer, Hall planned prison breaks, exposed double agents who aided the Nazis, advised and rescued young spies, and ingenuously sabotaged the Nazi government in Vichy.

Black Panthers Party Programs

The Black Panther Party: Service to the People Programs, by the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, edited by David Hilliard

The Black Panther Party’s health and social services platform was first published in book form in 2008, more than 40 years after the Party was founded. They believed in health for all and set up screening programs for sickle cell disease. Bradley Lomax, a BPP member with multiple sclerosis, participated in sit-ins to ratify Section 504 and helped establish a Center for Independent Living in Oakland.

Hear the happiness of Jaipreet Virdi

Hearing Happiness: Dedness Cures in History by Jaipreet Virdi

This unique book combines the autobiography with a larger story. Virdi, who is now a history teacher, became deaf after contracting meningitis as a child. It traces her own personal history as well as the history of deafness treatments, assistive devices and attempts to treat deafness in the United States from the 1860s to the present day. Healing has always been a controversial and contested topic in the deaf and disabled community.


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