History of Disability

Smithsonian every body

These four images of people and objects illustrate the rich and varied history of disability found in the Smithsonian’s EveryBody exhibit, which focuses on artifacts that illustrate the history of disability in America.



FALL 2019


Class Day & Time: Wednesdays 5-7:40 p.m.

Classroom Location: LI 107

Course Instructor: Beth Haller, Ph.D.

Instructor Email: bhaller@towson.edu

Office Location: Van Bokkelen 205B

Office Hours: Thursdays 2-4:45 p.m. in person or via Web-Ex by appointment

Catalog Description Overview of disability history; explores changing views of disabling conditions and the implications of these for individuals with disabilities.

Course Description The definition of disability has changed over time, and especially in the past 60 years. Shame has faded and full integration into society is expected. How did such a complete shift in thinking occur so rapidly? What are the implications for individuals with disabilities, the disability community, and disability advocates? This course will provide a preliminary overview of disability history and explore disabilities as cultural and historical phenomena that have transformed over many years, as well as influencing notions of “what is considered normal” in body, brain and behavior.

Course Learning Objectives Upon completion of this course, students will demonstrate the ability to:

  1. Trace the history of thinking about disabilities from ancient times to the present.
  2. Examine disability as a cultural construction that has changed over time.
  3. Identify factors such as religious practices, scientific and medical knowledge, economic structure, and power dynamics that influence the conceptualization of disability.
  4. Evaluate how such factors impact the status of people deemed disabled.
  5. Describe how historical trends have influenced the lives of individuals with disabilities in terms of access to education, employment, and healthcare.

Statement on political aspects of AADS 305 History of Disability:

The goal of this course is to explore the history of the lived experiences of individuals with disabilities, as well as how disability issues have been viewed throughout history. To this end, we highlight ableism – discrimination against citizens with disabilities — and the social model, which explains that society disables people with disabilities through its lack of access/social support, negative attitudes, and barriers to participation that nondisabled people enjoy. Students will learn about the origin of this discrimination that continues to affect disabled people today. As part of the learning process, students will be exposed to many viewpoints, which the larger nondisabled society rarely considers, including historical behaviors that were sometimes violent and deadly toward the disability community. In addition, as a history course, sometimes the readings and video content will use terminology that is no longer used in the current era and may be considered offensive; the intention is not to offend but just to be historically accurate about terms that used to be used. While drawing their own conclusions about disability and diversity issues, students are expected to approach the subject matter in a spirit of open inquiry and to demonstrate a willingness to examine disability history through a social justice lens.

Required Books, Readings, and Course Materials

Grading criteria for written assignments and course in general: (Whenever written assignments are given, I expect you all to produce the best written work of which you are capable.)

90 – 100 (“A” & “A-“) On the written assignments, this means the paper is clear, organized coherently, and well written. It is an effective discussion of the topic. It has no spelling, grammar, format, or accuracy errors. In terms of the course, this means you have almost perfect attendance, scores in this range on assignments, and have good questions and discussion in class.

80 – 89 (“B+”, “B” & “B-“) On the written assignments, the paper is cohesive and well organized, although it may have some minor spelling or grammatical errors. The discussion covers almost all of the important information and follows proper format. In terms of the course, this means you have good attendance, scores in this range on assignments, and have good questions and discussion in class.

70 – 79 (“C+” & “C”) On the written assignments, the paper is disorganized and contains many minor errors. The discussion missed some pertinent information or does not follow proper format. In terms of the course, this means you have poor attendance, scored in this range on assignments, and have not participated in class discussions.

60 – 69 (“D”) On the written assignments, the paper ineffectively discusses the topic; it is not coherent or understandable. It contains an unacceptable number of spelling, grammar errors and/or inaccurate information or does not follow proper format. In terms of the course, this means you have missed more classes than you have attended, scored in this range on the tests, and have not participated in class discussions.

Below 60 (“F”)* The paper contains major factual error(s) related to the topic. The information presented is completely incorrect. The paper does not meet the requirements in page length, focus, or format. In terms of the course, this means you have missed more classes than you have attended, scored in this range on the tests, and have not participated in class discussions. If you are caught cheating in any way, you will automatically receive an F in the course.

(“FX”)* This is an administrative failure for non-attendance or failure to withdraw. If you do not withdraw from the course by Towson’s preset deadlines for the semester and stop attending the class, this is the grade you will receive.

(“I”) Incomplete. At Towson University, students may only receive an Incomplete with “verifiable circumstances” and “where students have completed most of the term” (Towson University Undergraduate Catalog). I recommend a medical withdrawal over an incomplete.

Guidelines for all assignments:

  • All assignments must be typed in the form requested and should contain your name, the date, and the assignment topic in the upper left-hand corner. (No folders or binders are necessary for assignments. Just staple the pages together.)
  • If the assignment is due through Blackboard, please upload it there by the due date and time.
  • Follow the guidelines for each assignment carefully.
  • Proofread and correctly edit your papers!
  • No late papers will be accepted after the last day of the semester’s classes.
  • Any late papers will lose points for each day they are late.
  • Do not plagiarize, fabricate, or submit work you have done for another class. Cite all sources in your paper correctly. If you cut and paste material from the Internet without quote marks or a citation that is plagiarism. If you paraphrase another’s material, make sure to properly cite the source.
Academic Dishonesty:
I do not tolerate plagiarism or fabrication of any kind. You should adhere to the University’s policy on cheating and plagiarism. If you are caught breaking this policy, you will be prosecuted to the full extent that the policy allows. You should adhere to the highest possible standards of ethical behavior for this class.

 Exams & Assignments:

  • Class participation and screening responses (10 percent)
  • Midterm and Final Disability History Essay Exams (40 percent)
  • Oral history presentation (25 percent)
  • Book Project and Presentation (25 percent)

Class participation and screening responses (10 percent):

Class participation and active viewing of video content in class will allow you to engage with the assigned material and take a critical eye toward disability history topics. This active learning style should aid you in discussion of that day’s topic. All devices (laptops, tablets & phones) should be closed/silenced during video content. You will be given a sheet to take down comments and questions about the videos. Braille notetakers or audio recording is permitted, if you use those for notetaking. All the videos, Powerpoints and other materials from each week’s class will be posted on Blackboard.

Midterm & Final Disability History Essay Exams (40%)

These will be open-course materials, take-home essay exams that you will submit via Blackboard. You will receive a list of essay prompts on Blackboard to review in advance. The essay must include at least five readings/screenings from the first seven weeks (midterm) and last seven weeks of class (final) and at least five sources that you found on your own related to the topic, i.e. at least 10 references in the reference list for both essays. The essay should be in APA style and present the information in a compelling and well-organized way. It should have no spelling or grammatical errors. The essay should incorporate historical examples, direct quotes (at least five) and paraphrases from course readings/screenings. It should have an APA reference list attached.

Oral history presentations (25%)

Students will select a chapter from of Fred Pelka’s book What We Have Done. You will read 1 chapters from the first 12 chapters and then present the oral history stories from that chapter to the class. This book is available as an e-book from Cook Library: http://proxy-tu.researchport.umd.edu/login?url=https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/towson/reader.action?docID=4533110&ppg=1

Chapter 1 Childhood p. 30
Chapter 2 Institutions Part 1 p. 48
Chapter 3 Discrimination Part 1 p. 61
Chapter 4 Institutions Part 2 p. 77
Chapter 5 The University of Illinois p. 94
Chapter 6 Discrimination Part 2 and Early Advocacy p. 113
Chapter 7 The Parents Movement p. 131
Chapter 8 Activists and Organizers Part 1 p. 151
Chapter 9 Institutions Part 3 p. 174
Chapter 10 Activists and Organizers Part 2 p. 183
Chapter 11 Independent Living p. 197
Chapter 12 The Disability Press p. 227

“Book” Project (25%):

Each student group will create a small “book”/presentation for a general audience on a disability history topic. Groups are challenged to find innovative ways of explaining and exploring key disability history topics. This is a creative assignment. The student groups must use at least one primary historical source and will also consult secondary and popular sources for this project. Sources need to be listed on a reference sheet. However, the assignment is not a formal report. The assignment, and the list of references consulted, will not be in APA format or any other “style guide” format. The emphasis is on innovation, creativity, curiosity, and teamwork.

Why create a disability history “book?” There’s an old adage: “You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.”

Students today live in a hyper-digital world with exponential opportunities to disseminate ideas and knowledge in new and vibrant ways. This project allows student groups to utilize these innovative avenues for expression. Traditional academic skills are still equally important, but students also need to know how to collaborate and share knowledge using emerging systems and formats that require new modes of communication and thinking skills. As well, being able to communicate complex ideas to a general audience demonstrates mastery of course concepts.


Syllabus disclaimer: Syllabus is subject to change. Learning materials, learning activities, due dates, and schedules may be adjusted at the professor’s discretion. Students will be notified in advance of any changes.

August 28

The syllabus

Disability in pre-history & among native peoples


Nielsen, Chapter 1

People Thinking Action. (2013, January 19). Disability in prehistory. http://peoplethinkingaction.blogspot.com/2013/01/disability-in-prehistory.html

Kansen, G. (2016, March 9). Having a Disability in Prehistoric Times Was Sometimes Better Than It Is Today. I am not a robot blog. https://blogs.psychcentral.com/not-robot/2016/03/having-a-disability-in-prehistoric-times-was-sometimes-better-than-it-is-today/

Gorman, J. (2012, December 17). Ancient bones that tell a story of compassion. The NY Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/science/ancient-bones-that-tell-a-story-of-compassion.html


Sept. 4

Ableism & Disability Models

Colonialism and Disability

Note: Wednesday Sept. 4 is the last day for full semester add/drops.



Sept. 11

Enslavement and Disability

After the break, we will meet librarian Claire Holmes at 6:30 in Room 526 Cook Library for a presentation on finding historical sources (primary & secondary)



Sept. 18

The Institutionalization of Disability

  • Nielsen, Chapter 5
  • Haller, B. & Larsen, R. (2005). Persuading Sanity: Magic Lantern Images and the Nineteenth‐Century Moral Treatment in America. The Journal of American Culture.
  • Melden, P. (2017). Disability History: Early and Shifting Attitudes of Treatment. National Park Service Disability History series. https://www.nps.gov/articles/disabilityhistoryearlytreatment.htm
  • Video/reading of 10 Days In A Madhouse (1887), an Illustrated Reading of Nellie Bly’s Book on Blackwell Insane Asylum, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQnJoyKhhV0


Sept. 25

Disability History spotlight: Deaf education


Screening: “Through Deaf Eyes,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJeAG8tZyf4

Oct. 2


Screening: “The Eugenics Crusade,”  https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/eugenics-crusade/#part01


Oct. 9 

The Progressive Era: People with Intellectual Disabilities & Neurodiversity

(no in-person class)


  • Nielson, Chapter 6
  • Disability Rights Advocates. (1999). Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and People with Disabilities.


Oct. 16

Midterm essay exam due on Blackboard during class time (no in-person class)


Oct. 23

Disability History Spotlight: Helen Keller’s place in history

We will go to the Haben Girma talk during this class, 7 p.m.. West Village Commons.

Note: Email me with your chapter choice for the oral history presentation Nov. 13.



Oct. 30

Polio as a defining disability

Disability History Spotlight: Early charity advertising & telethons

Note: Nov. 4 is the last day to withdraw from the full semester. Also, Prof. Zaks will be in class to help us brainstorm about the final Book Project.



Nov. 6

20th & 21st century disability activism


  • Nielsen, Chapter 8
  • Haller, B. (2017). Global disability rights and the harnessing of social media. T. Humber & Waisbord, S. editors, Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights. NY: Routledge.



Nov. 13

Oral History summary presentations


Nov. 20

No class – groups work on Book Project presentations


Nov. 27-30 – University closed for Thanksgiving holiday


Dec. 4 – Book Project presentations


Dec. 11 – Final exam essay due on Blackboard

Questions for the essay will be on Blackboard by Dec. 5


Academic Integrity Policy

All student work including assignments, presentations, and tests must adhere to the university’s Student Academic Integrity Policy http://towson.edu/studentaffairs/policies/. The policy addresses such academic integrity issues as plagiarism, fabrication, falsification, cheating, complicity in dishonesty, abuse of academic materials, and multiple submissions. Penalties to violation of academic integrity ranges from F for the assignment to F for the course, in addition to a report filed in the Office of Student Conduct and Civility Education.

Liability Statement

In all assignments, students must comply with all laws and the legal rights of others (e.g. copyright, obscenity, privacy and defamation) and with all Towson University policies (e.g. academic dishonesty). Towson University is not liable or responsible for the content of any student assignments, regardless of where they are posted.

Students with Disabilities Policy

This course is in compliance with Towson University policies for students with disabilities as described in http://www.towson.edu/dss/. Students with disabilities are encouraged to register with Disability Support Services (DSS), 7720 York Road, Suite 232, 410-704-2638 (Voice) or 410-704-4423 (TDD). Students who suspect that they have a disability but do not have documentation are encouraged to contact DSS for advice on how to obtain appropriate evaluation. A memo from DSS authorizing your accommodation is needed before any accommodation can be made.

Student Athletes

You must have a letter from the coach explaining your place on the team and a schedule of any away games or competitions during the semester. You must take any tests and prepare any assignments that conflict with this schedule before the test or due date, not after.

Weapons Policy

To promote a safe and secure campus, Towson University prohibits the possession or control of any weapon while on university property. See the university policy at http://www.towson.edu/studentaffairs/policies/.


Earning a college degree is an endeavor that is preparing you for a future in a professional workplace. I expect you to display those qualities of professionalism in my classroom. Here are some policies and behaviors that I require you to follow:

  • You will show respect to your fellow classmates and your professor. You will not belittle or laugh at others’ ideas or dominate discussions. The professor may eject you from class for any inappropriate or disruptive behavior.
    • You will not interrupt or disrupt the class. This means all cell phones will be turned off during class. If you eat or drink during class, you will do so quietly and will always clean up after yourself by throwing away your trash. Leaving class to get food or beverage is a disruption. Only the restroom or an illness is an acceptable reason to leave the class. If you have a legitimate reason for leaving class early, please tell your professor before class and sit near the door.
    • You will be counted absent if you are more than 15 minutes late for class. You will be counted absent if you sleep in class, or leave class and do not return.
    • If you bring a laptop to class, it should only be used for taking notes. You will be counted absent for that class if I find you surfing the Internet, messaging, etc.
    • Because this is a once a week class, you are allowed only two unexcused absences. After that, you must bring in documentation, i.e. a signed doctor’s note or a signed health center note. However, please DO NOT attend class if you are contagious; we do not want your illness. In the case of car or traffic-related absences, you must bring a car repair bill or towing bill. (Not being able to find a place to park on Towson’s campus is NOT an excused absence.) In the case of a death-related absence, please email before you attend the funeral and give me the name of the deceased. The key to an excused absence is proper documentation.
    • Any UMS-recognized religious holiday is an excused absence, and the work missed can be made up. However, please inform your professor that you will be out of class and arrange to get the make-up work. Please obtain any missed notes from a fellow classmate.
    • Work-related or internship-related absences are NOT excused. Do not sign up for a class that conflicts with your work/internship schedule, or if you do not have the free time to complete required outside class assignments.
    • It is your responsibility to make up any missed work due to an absence. Please get to know your classmates and ask them first. The professor will discuss make-up work before or after class or during office hours, not during class time.
    • You, not the professor, are responsible for your grade. If you do not complete an assignment, you will receive a zero.
    • Do not attend class if you have been drinking or taking illegal drugs. If you do so, the campus police will be called and you will be asked to leave class.
    • Never lie, cheat, plagiarize, or fabricate. A mature person asks for help, rather than taking these unethical “shortcuts.” If your professor cannot give you the help you need, then she will refer you to the numerous on-campus resources, such as tutoring services or the Writing Center. If the class is still too difficult for you, become self-aware enough to understand when or if you should drop or withdraw from the class. There is no shame in withdrawing from a class and taking it another semester.
    • Respect yourself enough to try your best, and the professor will respect you, too.