Millward on Beckwith, 'Disability Servitude: From Peonage to Poverty'

Ruthie-Marie Beckwith
Gareth Millward

Ruthie-Marie Beckwith. Disability Servitude: From Peonage to Poverty. New Yoro: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 184 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-137-54030-0.

Reviewed by Gareth Millward (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) Published on H-Disability (May, 2017) Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison

Disability Servitude tells the history of the end of peonage in American institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. It shows how deinstitutionalization--one of the key developments in US disability policy since the 1960s--was not simply a moral or progressive movement. It was fueled as much by, if not more, the demand that residents who performed work in institutions ought to be paid the minimum wage. No longer financially viable, work colonies for “the mentally retarded” began to close, though other forms of segregation such as sheltered workshops, work activity centers, and regressive social security systems took their place. Thus, the story is told of how disabled people have moved “from peonage to poverty.”

After a concise and informative foreword by James W. Conroy, the book introduces the topic at hand. Chapter 2 displays a remarkably detailed view of how peonage (forced unpaid or lowly paid labor in an institutional setting) was a central part of American institutions for disabled and poor people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chapter 3 goes on to show how this system began to break down in the 1960s. Building on this base, it is from chapter 4 that the book is able to get into its stride and expose the internal contradictions, not just of peonage, but of the various imperfect systems that emerged to take its place. First, the author outlines the legal cases that established the rights of disabled people to earn a fair wage for their work and proper contributions toward social security benefits such as pensions. These began in 1964, with the majority of cases being heard in the 1970s, but led many institutions to simply stop employing their residents at all, replacing them with nondisabled workers. Chapter 5 therefore discusses what happened to these now idle residents. Beckwith shows how the number of employed residents dropped to about a sixth of what it had been before the landmark Souder v. Brennan case in 1973. Some disabled people were able to move into sheltered or open industry instead, which drives the narrative neatly onto chapter 6, detailing the historical contradictions of the “subminimum wage.” This was built on the concept that disabled people were incapable of being as productive as other workers, and therefore needed to be paid less to remain economically competitive. These “dehumanizing” attitudes are explored in chapter 7, which shows that segregated employment put up many of the same barriers that peonage had in a previous age. Even where the rhetoric of “normalization” began to wane during the 1980s and 1990s, access to open employment remained poor. Therefore, chapter 8 and the conclusion bring together these threads to show how modern social security and declining wages for disabled people relative to the national average have trapped people yet again in a new form of “servitude”--poverty.

The book is engagingly written and, as an outsider to American disability policy, I found it accessible and appealing. Each chapter neatly links to the one that follows it, raising questions before answering them with deep research from archives, personal correspondence, and publications from various institutions past and present. Beckwith does not hide her political position, yet she does an excellent job of problematizing the end of peonage. While forced labor is held to be self-evidently unethical, the lack of alternative employment and social reform for many disabled people led to new difficulties. In this sense, this book explores the changing definitions of disability, primarily from a legal perspective, rather than trying to impose presentist views of how disabled people ought be treated. By the same token, it does not shy away from exposing some of the exploitative and oftentimes downright cruel treatment of those condemned to institutional “paternalism.” The swing from extremes--from being forced to work to not being allowed to work--is expertly handled, showing that various forms of institutions never truly got to grips with how to gradually integrate disabled people into open employment. There was always an insurmountable gap, which reinforced even in disabled people the notion that they needed the institutions and should fear the outside world.

Even though the case studies in this volume are from the United States, Beckwith’s analysis will certainly be useful to disability scholars further afield. The peonage story is undoubtedly linked to other historical American institutions, such slavery and the minimum wage. But it is clear throughout the chapters that the legacy of the employment of disabled people during the Second World War and, most obviously, in the workhouse and the asylum looms large over shared national experiences. Historians of British institutions such as Remploy will find much to ponder, as will those engaged in present-day critiques of Employment and Support Allowance and disability employment schemes. Indeed, perhaps the biggest contribution from this book comes in chapter 5, where the historical illiteracy of the Treatment Advocacy Center is exposed. Without historical context, this body dismisses the end of peonage as unquestionably A Bad Thing, despite the long-standing debates which this book brings to wider attention. This is a lesson that many organizations concerned with disability could do with being taught.

Disability Servitude is a welcome addition to the field of disability studies, treading the line between advocacy and balanced critique with great skill. If there is to be a criticism, it is that the book is remarkably short--154 pages, including lengthy tables of key events and statistics. A wider view of disability employment and the ways in which deinstitutionalization played out in other political areas may add more context and strengthen still further the arguments on display. However, there is already a rich literature on these matters. The strength of this volume is that it takes a hitherto underexplored area of disability policy and shows how central it is to our understanding of the place of disabled people in contemporary American history. In this sense, it is invaluable.

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Citation: Gareth Millward. Review of Beckwith, Ruthie-Marie, Disability Servitude: From Peonage to Poverty. H-Disability, H-Net Reviews. May, 2017. URL:

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