Disability and the American Past at the Massachusetts Historical Society

Laurel Daen's picture

Disability and the American Past at the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society will host a series of programs, seminars, and workshops exploring the field of disability history. These events, aimed at members of the public, academic researchers, and educators, will provide a foundation for future MHS programming centering disability in historical analysis. Through panel conversations, presentations, and discussion, we will introduce the field of disability history, investigate some major research areas in the field such as activism, material culture, medical history, technology, citizenship, and provide a forum to examine new, emerging scholarship in our seminar series. Join us and speakers from around the country for this multi-perspective examination of disability in the American past.

Note on accessibility: All online programs will be in English and will have closed captioning enabled through Zoom. The panel discussions (10/7 An Introduction to Disability History; 10/13 Disability and the History of Medicine; 10/18 Disability in Early America; and 10/27 Disability Activism) will have ASL interpreters and will be recorded and will be available on YouTube within a week of the program. Our seminars explore unpublished works and because they are exploring a project in progress, they are not recorded. If you have questions about accessibility, please contact programs@masshist.org 


October 7 Thursday | 5:30 | Virtual program

An Introduction to Disability History

Beth Linker, University of Pennsylvania; Kim E. Nielsen, University of Toledo; and Rabia Belt, Stanford Law School

Moderated by Naomi Rogers, Yale School of Medicine

This conversation will aim to orient us in the field of disability history and serve to lay the groundwork for subsequent conversations in this series. How is disability used as an analytical tool in historical inquiry? Why is it important to center disability as a defining social category, like race, class, gender, and sexuality? How have definitions of disability varied through history, and what have been the social and cultural impacts of this shifting understanding? This conversation will present a brief history of the field and examine the foundational and emerging scholarship through a moderated, roundtable discussion with our panelists.

To register: https://18308a.blackbaudhosting.com/18308a/An-Introduction-to-Disability-History


October 12 Tuesday | 5:15 | Virtual seminar

Developmental Disorder, Racial Dissolution: Racial Typologies of Developmental Normalcy in Early Childhood Medicine, 1830–1870

History of Women, Gender & Sexuality Seminar

Kelsey Henry, Yale University

Comment by Evelyn Hammonds, Harvard University

This paper investigates “developmental asynchrony,” the mismatch between a sexually overdeveloped body and an underdeveloped mind, as a sign of racial degeneration fueled by sexual disorder in early child medicine. While developmental asynchrony was considered a hallmark characteristic of the Black race, similar developmental timing and patterning in white children inspired professional panic about developmental disorder and the dissolution of racial types. This paper proposes that medical theories of developmental normalcy and aberrancy are integral to telling stories about the co-constitution of race, gender, and sexuality and their conceptual and material entanglements in the antebellum U.S.

To register: https://18308a.blackbaudhosting.com/18308a/This-milestone-in-their-development-as-property


October 13 Wednesday | 5:30 | Virtual conversation

Disability and the History of Medicine

Deirdre Cooper Owens, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Jaipreet Virdi, University of Delaware; and Michael Rembis, University at Buffalo

Medicine and technology impact the lived experiences of disabled people in many ways. Advances improve people’s lives, however many of these have come at the cost of invasive diagnostic technologies, the medicalization of human conditions, and endless quests for cures. Doctors have performed experiments on the poor and disempowered, especially enslaved Black and institutionalized people who had a limited public voice. Writing medical history must include disabled people and use their experiences as analytical lenses for understanding historical events. Taking inspiration from the disability rights movement and the interdisciplinary field of disability studies, our discussion will delve into what has been written as traditional medical history and how we can tell a more complete story.

To register: https://18308a.blackbaudhosting.com/18308a/Disability-and-the-History-of-Medicine


October 16 Saturday | 1:00 | Virtual seminar

Her Socialist Smile: A Film Screening

Biography Seminar

John Gianvito, Emerson College; Carolyn Forché, Georgetown University

Moderated by Megan Marshall, Emerson College

In his new film, John Gianvito, known for passion projects of expansive shape and political ambition, meditates on a particular moment in early 20th-century history: when Helen Keller began speaking out on behalf of progressive causes. Beginning in 1913 when, at age 32, Keller gave her first public talk before a general audience, Her Socialist Smile is constructed of onscreen text taken from Keller’s speeches, impressionistic images of nature, and a newly recorded voiceover by poet Carolyn Forché. The film is a rousing reminder that Keller’s undaunted activism for labor rights, pacifism, and women’s suffrage was inseparable from her battles for the rights of the disabled. The film screening will be followed by a panel discussion.

To register: https://18308a.blackbaudhosting.com/18308a/Her-Socialist-Smile---Virtual-Panel-Discussion


October 18 Monday | 5:30 | Virtual conversation

Disability in Early America

Sari Altschuler, Northeastern University; Nicole Belolan, Rutgers University; and Laurel Daen, University of Notre Dame

Moderated by Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai, MHS

Our panel will explore how disability functioned in early America from personal, political, and cultural perspectives. What did disability mean in the early United States and how does it differ from our ideas about disability today? How did disability operate as a political and legal category in the colonial period, and how did it change in the early republic? What can material culture tell us about the lived experience of persons with disabilities in the era? This conversation will situate disability as a framework through which we can better understand the early lives of Americans and their often contested national and cultural identity.

To register: https://18308a.blackbaudhosting.com/18308a/Disability-in-Early-America


October 19 Tuesday | 5:15 | Virtual seminar

Her Yet Unwritten History: Black Women and the Education of Students of Color with Disabilities in the New South

African American History Seminar

Jenifer Barclay, University at Buffalo

Comment by David Connor, CUNY

Historians have recognized the role of Black women educators in schools throughout the South, work associated today with well-known figures like Mary McLeod Bethune, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Mary Church Terrell. Little has been written, however, about lesser-known Black women educators like Susan Lowe, Amanda Johnson, and Effie Whitaker, who made essential contributions to the early education of children of color with 
disabilities in the South. This essay will consider the critical work of these women who represent just a handful of the many Black women who recognized the overlapping effects of racism and ableism in the lives of disabled students of color.

To register: Massachusetts Historical Society (blackbaudhosting.com)


October 23 Saturday | 9:00–3:00 | Virtual teacher workshop

Re-examining Dorothea Dix and 19th-Century Disability Reform

 Nineteenth-century Massachusetts reformer Dorothea Dix is renowned for her efforts to improve the horrendous treatment of people with mental 
disabilities in local jails, almshouses, and asylums. Her investigations and activism led to major changes in the mental health field, including shifting care from local to state control. However, Dix’s views and actions were not representative of individuals with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities, and the voices of these individuals are often marginalized when the history of these reforms is told. In partnership with Emerging America and the Disability History Museum, the MHS offers an educator workshop that will provide a deeper context for teaching Dix’s legacy and the history of asylum reforms in the 19th century. Educators will engage with rich primary sources that center the voices of people with mental disabilities and will be equipped with strategies for bringing these important stories into the classroom. This program has a $25 non-refundable fee per person and is open to all who work with K-12 students. Teachers can earn either 22.5 PDPs or 1 graduate credit with Worcester State University (for an additional fee). ASL translation available upon request. 

To register: https://18308a.blackbaudhosting.com/18308a/Dorothea-Dix-Workshop


October 27 Tuesday | 5:30 | Virtual conversation

Disability Activism: A Historical Perspective from Some of the Leading Activists in Massachusetts

Heather Watkins; Charlie Carr; Keith Jones; John Chappell; and Fred Pelka

Moderated by Malia Lazu

The disabilities rights movement, like many rights movements, has been complex, coming from a variety of different perspectives, but at its heart, it has been a movement for justice, equal opportunities, and reasonable accommodations. Massachusetts has played a unique role in this struggle and this conversation will aim to introduce the story of disability activism in Massachusetts. Our panel includes current activists and historians of this movement. Through a moderated, roundtable discussion, our panelists will explore their experiences, their inspirations, the history of the movement and what they hope to see in the future of disability activism.

To register: https://18308a.blackbaudhosting.com/18308a/tickets?tab=3&txobjid=37306eaf-40fd-4106-9cc8-471fdf6a5aa6


October 28 Thursday | 5:15 | Virtual seminar

“The Virus of Slavery and Injustice”: Analogy and Disabled Life in African American Writings, 1865-1892

Dina G. Malgeri Modern American Society & Culture Seminar

Vivian Delchamps, University of California, Los Angeles

Comment by Sari Altschuler, Northeastern University

Engaging Todd Carmody’s invitation to consider how “race might have been ‘like’ disability in the late nineteenth century,” this essay explores texts by African American authors Charlotte L. Forten, Martin Robison Delany, and Frances E.W. Harper. Harper’s novel Iola Leroy renders slavery a “virus,” “deadly cancer,” and “wound,” necessitating a cure; simultaneously, the novel depicts lived realities of disability, disrupts diagnostic reading practices, and takes a care-based, rather than curative, approach to disability itself. The essay thus reads literature as a generative site for asserting ableism’s 
centrality to the legacy of racial violence, and explores the value of using diagnostic-like narrative methods to target systemic sources of mass debilitation.

To register: https://18308a.blackbaudhosting.com/18308a/The-Virus-of-Slavery-and-Injustice-Analogy-and-Disabled-Life-in-African-American-Writings