Kim Nielsen: A Disability History of the United States

Friday, 23 November 2012 | buzz

Kim Nielsen

On Friday November 23, our host Jonathan Zarov speaks with Kim Nielsen, author of A Disability History of the United States. Kim is a Professor of History and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and will be in Madison on Tuesday, Nov 27 for a talk on her book. She prefaces her discussion of the book,“I wrote the book because there has been very little discussion about people with disabilities throughout the United States. I start all the way prior to European arrival and carry it up to the present.”


Kim, who studied women in politics, found herself interested in disability history while doing research on Helen Keller. She went through a process of discovery as she did more research on disability history, observing that most people have disabled people in their lives, or had a history of it. Kim, who wrote a book about Helen Keller in, Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller, explains an aspect of the story that has remained forgotten in history. She explains how Helen Keller was listed, in a far right newspaper, as one of the “10 most dangerous women in America,” because she was a socialsist, labor and women’s rights activist, and a founding member of the ACLU…she was even surveyed by the FBI her entire life…One of the reasons that has been totally ereased from our historical memory is because she was disabled, because she was female, people believed she couldn’t form opinions by herself.”


While writing her book, Kim found the prevalence of disability in the United States. She speaks on-air about one school teacher who was afflicted with polio during World War II, and therefore had to deal with a mobility disability like so many others. Because of the tire rations during the war, she could not get new tires for her car so that she could get to work; as a result, she, like others in her position, lost their jobs. Kim explains, “disability was invisibly written into public policy, and had consequences for everyday life… labor policy, industrialization, standards of beauty, race, and immigration as well.” She says “disability is increasingly understood as an issue of power and of rights. I think we as a society are trying to figure the relationship between disability and the ideas of gender, race, sexuality, and identity.” She comments that people with disability often have high rates of poverty and are targets of hate crimes, and often have low rates of employment and education, “there’s still a lot that needs to be done.”


Public Lecture: A Disability History of the United States, Or What I Learned From Reading My Own Book

Tuesday Nov 27 @ 5-7 PM

Helen C. White Hall


Listen to the entire interview here:

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