Amanda Tinkle: So, can you just begin and tell us your academic background as a historian and a Professor at Indiana University, especially about your class introduction to the history of disability?
Irvin: Sure! So, my name is Benjamin Irvin, and I was trained as an Early American historian– meaning the colonial period. I'd mostly teach classes on Colonial North America/British North America, and my own expertise. My research expertise is in the Revolutionary War. So, I wrote my first book of all things on the Continental Congress, which was the gathering of delegates who came from throughout the colonies, and sort of spearheaded the American resistance movement against Great Britain. But my first job was teaching at the University of Arizona out in Tucson, and as I was finishing up my book on a Continental Congress, I began to wonder what other projects on the Revolution could I pursue?
But the challenge of living out in Tuscon, out in the West is that, you know, most of the archives of early American history are situated on the East Coast back in places like Boston or Philadelphia, or Williamsburg, Virginia. And so how am I going to write a book about the Revolutionary War, when I'm situated in Tucson, Arizona– and I was aware that there are digitized archives called Revolutionary War veterans pensions. These are veterans of the Revolutionary War who applied for pensions after the war, and it told something about their life, history, and their experiences of war, and that those were available to me online in Arizona. So I was saying, “Okay, that might be a fertile place to kick around.” And there was a student at the University of Arizona. He had– actually, he had just completed his PhD the year I arrived. His name is Michael Rumbus and Michael Rumbus is, continues to be, and has been something of a pioneer in the field of disability history. He had just completed his dissertation at the time – this would have been around 2005 or 2006– he just completed a dissertation on eugenics, and the incarceration of young women and girls who were deemed juvenile delinquents in the early part of the twentieth century, and I was teaching a course on masculinity in manhood. And Michael Rumbus was teaching a course on disability, and we got together over lunch, and had extensive conversations about gender and disability, and that got me thinking, “Oh, perhaps these Revolutionary War veterans pensions could be susceptible to a disability analysis,” and so I embarked on a course of self education in the field of disability studies and disability history. And somewhere along the line– It's been a few years now– I developed this course on the history of disability in the United States, and that's how I all got into it.
Amanda Tinkle: Okay, thank you. And can you– the history of disability– can you explain kind of what the history of disability looks like from your perspective of a historian?
Irvin: Sure! So, central to disability studies and disability history is what's known as the social model of disability. The social model of disability is a way of conceptualizing impairment and disability throughout history, and it was created specifically in response to the medical model of disability. The medical model of disability imagines it is the doctor's job to fix the individual. The disability is something to be cured; it is inherent in a specific person, and it must be cured. And so the social model came about in the seventies through the work of activists and scholars, seventies and eighties, this gained steam. And the social model imagines disability differently. Disability, the social model tells us, doesn't reside in the individual, it resides in where it arises from societies. Failure or the limitations of society's ability to accommodate physical and psychological and emotional difference. You know, the body comes in many different shapes and sizes and forms and functions and capacities, and all the societies in which humans have have sometimes done an excellent job of making room for all that variation, and other times they have, you know, norms or expectations that don't fully accommodate all of the variations of the human condition. And so, from the perspective of the social model of disability, disability arises from a society's unwillingness or inability or failure to accommodate, or the limits of its ability to accommodate the various conditions of the human form.
And so, if that's true– now, that's a long wind up, but here's the pitch– if it is true that disability arises from the capacity of any given society to accommodate physical and the psychological emotional difference, then that implies that disability is specific to different societies, and that it changes over time. The ability of a society to accommodate, the willingness of a society to accommodate physical difference – human difference, psychological difference, changes with evolution and technology, evolution and ideology, evolution in governments, and their capacity to intervene – and so we see that so that's really- that's a really cool insight for a historian that “wait, disability is specific to the unique society in which it is embedded, and consequently disability is susceptible to historical analysis.” We can see the ways that disability changes from place to place and over time. And you can see that in US history, and so I'll give you an example from my own research:
For instance, the veterans of the Revolutionary War sought pensions on account of their war wounds from a government– United States government that had only just within the past few years been declared into existence. This was right after promulgation of the Declaration of Independence. It was right after the ratification of the United States Constitution. And so this is a - this is a federal republic in its earliest years, without a strong bureaucracy, without a strong budget, still trying to figure out what its new Constitution permitted and prohibited. And you see this in the veterans efforts to obtain pensions. So, for example, they had to appear in a Federal district court, and the district court sent them to local positions or surgeons to have their bodies examined; so if that's the Revolutionary War – fast forward to World War II, when we have - where we are well through The New Deal in the United States, there is a vast bureaucratic infrastructure for the administration and social welfare programs. And so in World War II to accommodate disabled veterans, Congress passes what we know is the G.I. bill, which is not just for disabled. Better first for all veterans, but includes a comprehensive program of veterans rehabilitation, veterans care, veterans benefits that vastly exceeds anything that was offered to veterans of the Revolutionary War.
Back in the 1780s and 1790s, so this is just one example of the way disability changes within a given society, and through the course, through my course, the course proceeds chronologically. We begin in the Colonial period, and we move forward through time, and so we see how disability intersects with the institution of chattel slavery. We talk about the ways in which was supposed or imputed disabilities of black people were used to justify by whites, by white supremacists, to justify the institution of slavery. We move forward into the industrial area- so here's another example of what I was talking about the historicity of disability:
Industrialization results in the creation of factories, especially, for example, in the steel industry, or in the coal industry that put laborers in great peril. It was a common thing. We read an article about industrial Pittsburgh, and it was a common thing in Pittsburgh to- for industrial workers to lose arms or legs while they worked in the coal mine through these, you know, these coal trucks that were pretty unregulated. Then they would crash into unsuspecting minors, or the steel mills where they had hot molten steel. It was possible to have- to have spills or drops of heavy equipment or heavy material that resulted frequently in the amputation of limbs. So you have in Pittsburgh, of all places, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, you find the emergence of a prosthetics industry. They're making artificial limbs for the workers who are disabled in the steel mills and the coal mines and that's- that's something that's very specific to that moment, that technological development, that region of the world where mining and steel manufacturers are prevalent. And so that's what we explore in my class, in which experiences of impairment, the- the social experience of disability changes from place to place, and from time to time.
Amanda Tinkle: Yeah, as you said, the Industrial Revolution and nowadays- we have more technological advancements even farther than that. And so with these experiences, like losing limbs from factories and things about nature in the wide range of disabilities, throughout all the United States and other social spaces - how does having a disability in a society that may not be built to accommodate those things or or center around those disabilities, how does that affect someone, in the terms of identity, how does that affect someone, and how they view themselves or in- in the social context?
Irvin: That's an excellent question, I have to preface it by acknowledging that, you know, again, one of the things that emerges from the study of disability is, you know, the tremendous variation in the human condition. The human body comes in all different sizes and shapes and functionalities, and same is true for human psychology in an emotional capacity, human intellectual and cognitive development. And so I think it's- it's critically important– and we talked about this in the class– it's critically important to recognize the diversity inherent within the experiences of disability. In fact, to come back- to circle back to my colleague, Michael Rumbus, now at the University of Buffalo. I was speaking about him earlier, you know, Michael and I were talking about it, and and I think– I don't know that he's committed to this idea, but once in a sort of a peak of frustration, he said, “You know, the more I study disability, the less comfortable I am with it is a category, or less certain I am that as a category it even exists.” Obviously, impairment exists. Obviously, people experience discrimination on the basis of their difference. So, Michael didn't mean to imply that disability doesn't exist in that regard. But simply that as an umbrella category, disability is so broad that, when you begin to study it, you realize that many of the generalizations slip away, and you can't presume too much commonality of experience, but so- so to try to take a stab at your question, you know, how does disability shape identity? How does disability shape a sense of self?
You know, if- if we think of again, of disability emerging from the failure of society, or the imperfect ability of society to accommodate difference, I think the experience of that sort of discrimination or oppression cause the individual, or can cause an individual to question, you know, their sense of belonging. is this- is this government, is this society made for me? Does it believe in me? Does it acknowledge me? And I think, there can be a powerful sense of erasure that comes from attempting to navigate a built environment, for example, that doesn’t account for you or… I’m reminded of– we read an essay about an organization called The League of the Physically Handicapped, which was a small group of disability advocates in the era of the Great Depression, and they were seeking work relief. They were out of jobs, and what they understood all too well is that they could not get jobs for which they were extremely well qualified because of their disability.
And the example that comes to mind is there's a woman, and I forget the nature of her disability, but I believe she may have used a wheelchair or a cane, and she trained in business school and she was top of her class. And she couldn't get a job and so she went to typing school. Perhaps- I hope I'm not distorting the facts- but she went to typing school, she was the fastest typist, and she was perfectly equipped to the straight of assistant, or what most days would have been called a secretary, but no one would hire her because she used a chair, and, or, a cane. And even though that was completely irrelevant to the work that doing or was trained to do and it would have had no impact on her ability to perform her occupation, she continued to meet the sort of ableist discrimination in the hiring place, and so that that was profoundly frustrating to her, because she could see plainly through the dysfunction of this system that refused to acknowledge her capabilities and left her frankly with nowhere to go. So here's a woman who's highly qualified to work in an office setting, and she was being, you know, sort of shunted to these public work environments that were set aside for persons with disability, where she was asked to do menial labor for fraction of her, you know, the wages she might have otherwise been earning.
And- and that was perfect, only frustrating and felt like it had- it had the capacity to to make her feel like a sort of castaway or a cast off, and the early work relief programs that came out of the Roosevelt administration were created to make work for individuals but they didn't have any accommodations or recognitions of persons with disabilities. This woman still, even under, I believe it was the worst progress of administration – but it was under a new deal work regimen– this woman could still not find out work, because the program wasn't set up with her. So they went and staged a sit-in. But that's just an example of some of the ways that a person who inhabits a society that doesn't take account of their difference, can feel excluded, oppressed, erased, whose lives can just be made very difficult.
Amanda Tinkle: Yeah- and then you definitely just reminded me of something. So recently, I have been looking at jobs and applications and one of the sections, now, that you can voluntarily fill out it's a disability recognition section. And that is something that is voluntary, you don't have to fill out, but that's a new thing that I've noticed in every single job application that I've done in the past, like, month or so. And so with like the job discrimination that she faced, and things of that nature– what are other kinds of obstacles, or stigmas and discriminations that someone within the community, someone with a disability, would face that an able-bodied person would not that could affect who they are and how they're received?
Irvin: Sure, so through much of US history, one of the primary forces of discrimination, one of primary manifestations of discrimination are barriers to access, and barriers to access come in a variety of forms, and again this- this underscores the the variation of human capacity, human ability. And so, maybe that's a building that depended exclusively on stairs where there are no elevators, or, you know, sidewalks with curbs that are non navigable to persons with disabilities. I suspect most of the listeners to this podcast will not remember public payphones, but there was an era in which payphones were equipped with teletype devices that allowed persons who were deaf or hard of hearing to communicate on the phone. It was- I gather from what I've read that it was kind of a cumbersome system, but it was an accommodation all the same.
Today, we see you know it's- it's important to, when you're working in digital environments, to provide captioning and videos. For example, most of us who walk down the street will encounter tactile paving; the little bumps you see on the road on the sidewalk right before you reach the curve. Well, that's- that is there because it is detectable to persons with visual impairment or blindness. And so these are the many of these creations are consequences of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which was ratified in 1990, and which in turn built upon the Architectural Barriers Act in 1868. You know, a recognition that our human built environment does not accommodate all the various forms and functionalities that humans take. Those are- those are built-in environment sort of stuff, very material, very physical, very concrete. But there are also, you know, stereotypes or prejudices or preconceptions.
One of the things we talk about in my classes is what's called the presumption of incompetence. The presumption of incompetence is something that many able-bodied people have when they encounter a person with a disability. That person has one discipline, and therefore they have a general sort of blanket inability to do anything, and I don't know if you've ever watched a sitcom or a movie where somebody raises their voice in an attempt to communicate with a blind person. That's because they're applying the presumption of incompetence. They think while this person is deaf and so I need to- this person is blind and therefore I need to, you know, speak up, is a false belief that disability is tantamount to a total incapacitation. And there are flip sides to that, too; there can be dangerous presumptions of competence as well. So one of the- one of the topics for studying disability studies, topics of conversation, is invisible disabilities: visible disabilities that are not readily apparent. You know, somebody using a wheelchair, somebody walking with a cane, somebody with a prosthetic leg, that's a visible disability. But there are all kinds of disabilities that aren't immediately recognizable to, you know, casual onlookers. And so- so and often in those situations, the casual onlooker assumes or presumes that the person is you know, able-bodied, and is consequently capable of doing again what our society expects able-bodied people to do, and that that can be very exhausting for a person who may have all some sort of impairment or medical condition that is not directly visible to other people in the world. Another thing you learn about impairment when you study it is that, you know, the physical symptoms of impairment sometimes depending on the nature of the impairment. Sometimes they wax and wane; there may be days when a person who uses a cane needs their cane and there may be days when a person who uses a cane doesn’t need their cane. But those days when that person doesn't need their cane does not mean they’re not impaired and it doesn't mean they can meet every expectation of a hostile-built environment.
And so, that's, in that presumptions of confidence, presumptions of incompetence, presumptions about bodily capacity, psychological capacity, emotional capacity are baked into this notion of ableism that we return to time and again in my course. Ableism is sort of a discriminatory or oppressive belief system that privileges the able body and the expectation of supposedly able bodies. And that creates, you know, it creates hardships for persons whose bodies are not equal to that, you know, really unfounded set of expectations.
Amanda Tinkle: Yes, and something that you brought up with the invisible disabilities, invisible impairments, that makes me think of things like mental illness. And with this new trend in social media and kind of activism, recognizing progression and those kinds of things, looking throughout history, and then in modern day as well, has the accommodations and recognition of disability or impairment- has it, like, progressed? Is it getting more recognition, getting better? Is there more conversation? And is it a social push, or is it more of a governmental recognition as well?
Irvin: Okay, well, that's an excellent question, and that really gets into the- the meat of my syllabus for my disability course. And so, one of the things we learn in– one of the fascinating things about disability, and I can do this with you know, all my undergraduate students, is- is as we work through this semester, I want you to start with words that are used in various historical moments to describe or define disability, right? And when you make this long list– I'm gonna give two and it doesn't give me a particular pleasure to speak these words aloud, but we recognize that these words were used throughout various moments in history to describe persons with disability in the seven- late 1600s, excuse me. Two words that were common for psychological or cognitive, or mental or emotional disabilities were “idiocy” and “lunacy.” “Idiocy” and “lunacy.” And so we began in the colonial period. And so I asked these students to write these kinds of words down all through the semester, and maybe it's “handicapped,” maybe it's “crippled,” but you see that the varying vocabulary that is used to describe disability changes over time, and that's- that's your first clue that disability is a social construct disability, is specific to unique societies and unique moments in time, and it changes over time, and consequently it's susceptible to historical analysis. But to come back to your question, one of the things we discover in my class– one of the first things we read is a law from Massachusetts, and I believe it dates to the early 1600s, and it provides for the care of all. And then it uses those terms “idiots'' and “lunatics.” And the way that the system worked was that the colonial government of Massachusetts would gather taxes, and it would allocate some of those taxes- it would send some of those tax dollars to towns to take care of people who were so called “idiots” or “lunatics.” And that usually happened by placing– either if they could live with their families, they would live with their families and their families might get a little more financial support, or perhaps more commonly, they would be sent to work in private homes.
And so some now would volunteer to take care of a person, and maybe they would put that person to work, or maybe not. And the town would give them a little bit of tax money for that purpose. That's the Colonial Era, and then you know in the the early 1800s there was a social reformer by the name of Dorothea Dix, famous social reformer, who went throughout the Massachusetts countryside, visiting private homes and institutions where persons that we would today recognize as persons with mental illness, or persons with psychological impairments, where those people were kept in house. And what she discovered were deplorable conditions: physical abuse, malnourishment, inadequate heating, inadequate cooling, complete- complete- completely improper dwelling spaces. And this reformer, Dorothea Dix, went to the Massachusetts legislature, and she later went to the United States Congress, and testified about what she saw, and that gave rise in part to an asylum movement. And so we move an asylum system. Asylum is kind of like a hospital. It is a residential care facility usually operated by the states themselves for the provision of care, the treatment of people who could not care for themselves. And, you know, their elaborate theories about the architecture texture of asylums– there's something called the Kirkbride Plan which is literally the footprint, or the blueprint of an asylum. It's supposed to be designed with these wings, with- the rationality and, you know, smear rectangularity of the building. It’s supposed to provide a sense of order and calm to a person who is experiencing mental illness. And they're so there- there are treatment plans to go along with this: the moral treatment, which is very light on work and light on sort of stimulating exercise, stimulating reading, stimulating foods, anything that would be disruptive or excite the person was supposed to be minimized.
That's the mid-1800s, you know, and then we move forward in the twentieth century, and we have the emergence of a full-blown welfare state with social security and Medicare and Medicaid, and a lot of this actually, believe it or not, is driven by developments in veterans care. So, the veterans of the Revolutionary War got pensions, and the veterans of the Civil War were placed in soldiers' and sailors' homes. These were sort of like retirement homes for veterans with significant disabilities of the Civil War. That proved to be extremely expensive. And so one of the- one of the weird things happening is that Civil War veterans are very old in the late 1800s, early 1900s, and the federal government has paid a lot of money to sustain these veterans with their disabilities throughout their long lives. And so right then, on the eve of World War I legislators say, “Well, that was- it was really expensive to give pensions and to- to house Civil War veterans. We're paying a lot of money for that, so now that we're looking at this next military conflict, what we'll do is provide rehabilitated medicine and occupational training. We’ll train veterans on how to do jobs that they otherwise couldn't do.” And then by World War II, that- that emerges into a full GI bill with occupational rehabilitation and education, and financial assistance of various kinds. And so- so this is the way that the role of the state changes as the state develops, as the state grows bigger, as the state grows more competent, if you will.
Amanda Tinkle: And thank you for touching on that! And so, one of the last questions that I have for you- just one little quick one that I didn't have earlier is: do you have an insight on the inclusion and- and awareness of mental health and mental disability in terms of… everything we talked about physical disability, what is the history and recognition of mental health in terms of accommodations, or just the recognition of a kind of disability?
Irvin: That's an excellent question, and we talked about it a lot in my class, and I'll- I’ll start and go back to the example earlier of idiocy and lunacy and those terms. I - again, those terms, are so unfortunate and so disappointing, and- and yet and yet they pervade- they pervade our English. One of the things that strikes me when I teach disability history is that so many of the words we use to insult owe themselves to ableist discrimination against person with disabilities. I mean, if you think of words like “idiot,” “fool,” “dumb,” “lunatic.” I- I may have even said yesterday in the email whatever I was- I was- I was riled up about something or another and I was complaining, and I said, “that's insane.” Well, there- there it is. That's ableist. You know, it pervades our language.
But, so- so there is throughout history, there is a very powerful, forceful recognition of psychological and mental impairment. So, our society expects the individual to provide for him or herself, and for his or her dependence- you with me? It's- it's a very powerful expectation of personal responsibility, and the idea is kind of if everybody takes care of themselves, we can keep moving forward, right? So in our society, the individual is expected to take care of his or herself, and their dependence, right? And persons who have severe psychological impairments or severe cognitive impairments, often are not capable of doing so. Disability, arguably- disability arises where individuals cannot meet that basic expectation that they provide for themselves and their dependence. Disability arises because our society doesn't have a good answer to the- I'm just gonna say problem, but that's from the logic inherent in what I'm saying- disability arises because our society doesn't have a good deal- good way of handling people who cannot meet that fundamental expectation that they provide for themselves. And persons with severe cognitive and mental incapacities often can't, and they've been present throughout most, if not all, of history, and there's certainly present in history from the beginning of the United States, so that that early Massachusetts law doesn't say this is how it'll take care of amputees, it doesn't say this is how we will take care of the blind, it says this is how we'll take care of idiots and lunatics. So, in- in- in many ways, psychological and mental disability or impairment have been at the forefront of governmental and societal awareness in US history.
Those asylums that I described earlier were commonly inhabited by persons, or set aside for persons with cognitive or psychological impairment. But just because our society has been aware of such individuals, doesn't mean it's always been responsive to or accommodating of them. And so I mentioned before that some impairments are not readily visible, that some symptoms of some impairments wax and wane. And that is true for many persons with, you know, I've- I’ve mentioned- I've twice used the adjective “severe” when describing the accommodations that were set aside for persons with psychological and cognitive impairments, that severe impairments. But there are lots of people who have more moderate psychological or cognitive challenges that are not accommodated, but that leaves those persons vulnerable to discrimination, leaves those persons challenged in the performance of life tasks for which- and it can be difficult- it can be difficult to recognize. It can be difficult to get those individuals the appropriate care or the appropriate recognition of the challenges they face, and so- so it's something that, you know, changes from historical moment. The recognition is certainly there because our society gets tripped up when it's got individuals within it that can't provide for themselves. We see that with homelessness, we see that with drug dependencies. Our society doesn't always have good answers to those issues. And so it can be the same for persons with disabilities.
Amanda Tinkle: Yes, yes, I thought that was a great answer to that. That you did a great job, explaining that for us.
Irvin: You’re very kind, Amanda.
Amanda Tinkle: Yes, thank you! I agree that it's great that we're able to even have these discussions with each other.
Irvin: Well, it's nice to be able to speak with you and I'm grateful that you all gave me this chance.
Amanda Tinkle: Yes, and thank you so much again for joining us. We had a great discussion today!