Experiences of People with Disabilities (1867-1977)

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Historical context

Throughout history, societies have recognized that people have different abilities. Some people were identified as being disabled, though the definition of disability has changed over time. In the last two centuries in the US, the treatment of people with disabilities has changed significantly. Responsibility for the care and treatment of people with disabilities shifted from primarily within the family to institutions and government auspices, often in asylums (see also this Library of Congress resource including primary sources about asylums.) People with disabilities shifted from being largely hidden from public view to being more visible in the community. Disabled people have also pushed for changes to be included and have the same access to the community as everyone else. 

Historical resources

Culturally relevant pedagogy considerations

Seeing oneself in the curriculum is critical. Tenet 2 of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy emphasizes that students see aspects of their identities mirrored in the curriculum, reading texts, assessments, and classroom environment. Many students, their family members, or friends have disabilities, and yet disability studies and disability history is rarely taught in schools. In a review of all standards of the US states, District of Columbia, territories, and Department of Defense Education Activity conducted by Wendy Harris in 2020, only 21 included the word disability or disabilities, many of those in “Americans with Disabilities Act.” Disability history is also the history of the most diverse minority group and reflects all these intersectional identities. This source set is a contribution to including disability history in the classroom and includes sources reflecting the experience in asylums, others around classifying disabilities and policies restricting or supporting people with disabilities, and still others around resilience, resistance and joy.

Content warning

Several of these sources use words that may have been appropriate to use in the past but are now offensive to many people. It is important to clarify the meaning of words as used in the past and to let students know which words are offensive. It is also important for students to know these terms even if they are no longer acceptable, as they are useful keywords to use when researching historical topics around disabilities. For more discussion of terms used for disability over time, see this guide to disability terminology or this guideline for writing or talking about people with disabilities.

This set was compiled by Wendy Harris, high school teacher at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Classroom ready resources

Experiences of People with Disabilities (1867-1977) (High School)

Lunatic asylum demographics.

Lunatic asylum demographics

Date: 1867
Creator: Board of Trustees and Offers of the Southern Ohio
Type: Report

1880 Census Form

1880 Census Form

Date: 1879
Creator: US Census Bureau
Type: Form



Date: approx. 1882
Creator: S. D. Clinton
Type: Pamphlet

Bertha Flatten’s registration form.

Bertha Flatten’s registration form

Date: 1892
Creator: Faribault State School and Hospital
Type: Ephemera
Content Warning: Brief mention of sexual behavior

The San Francisco Call newspaper.

Beggars Must Keep Off the Streets

Date: March 9, 1895
Creator: The San Francisco Call
Type: Newspaper
Location: Columns 1-5

Playtime at the Oklahoma School for the Blind.

Playtime at the Oklahoma School for the Blind

Date: 1917
Creator: Lewis Hine
Type: Photograph

Disabled people playing baseball.

Cripples Play Baseball 1919

Date: 1919
Creator: Bain News Service
Type: Photograph

Ellis Island, Psychopathic Ward.

Ellis Island, Psychopathic Ward

Date: after 1933
Creator: Historic American Buildings Survey
Type: Drawing

Letter barring attendance.

Letter barring attendance

Date: October 1, 1951
Creator: M. Novella, School Nurse
Type: Letter

Panther Intercommunal News Service.

Handicapped Win Demands – End H.E.W. Occupation

Date: May 7, 1977
Creator: The Black Panther Intercommunal News Service
Type: Newspaper


Meghan Davisson (meghan.davisson@mnhs.org), grant director

Disclaimer: Content created and featured in partnership with the TPS program does not indicate an endorsement by the Library of Congress.