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Disability History through Primary Sources

A photo of a group of six men sitting around a table. A large device takes up most of the table space. It is a box that opens up and has a record player inside as well as speakers fo amplify sound. The men sit in chairs and face the device. While some of the man wear glasses, all of their eyes are closed. The men lean towards the device to listen, leaning on their hands and resting their elbows on the table.
Blind young men listen to a recorded book from the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled. Library of Congress.

Portal for Disability History through Primary Sources

    NEW: Resource Guide: Disability History and Studies - Choices Program Brown University


    Overview on Disability History Primary Sources and Curriculum

    The integration of the history of people with disabilities into the curriculum benefits all students.  Recognizing the many roles of people with disabilities across time can be especially powerful for students who struggle in their own lives.  Students engage when they connect with history that reflects their experiences.  Furthermore, disability history is increasingly recognized as vital to a full understanding of U.S. history, including in the 2018 Massachusetts standards. For further thoughts, watch a one-minute video clip, "Why focus on History of People with Disabilities?" and read the essay Why Teach Disability History? (Updated in 2023).  

    Primary sources from the Library of Congress, the Disability History Museum, and other collections can provide entry points and deepen exploration into historical events. Primary sources add immediacy, such as the faces in a photograph, the emotional tone of a drawing or song, or the complex look of a handwritten document. Documents from multiple points of view can illuminate conflicting ideas and events. Varied media, including maps, oral histories, published reports, and graphs offer many options for connection and investigation. Guided video tips and for finding primary sources building primary source sets are in our Teaching Resources. Also see the Library of Congress research Guide for Middle and High School Students

    For support in understanding of the scope and flow of Disability History, see Disability History Timelines. See lists of disability history curricula below. Download teacher-developed examples of Lessons on Disability History that directly address content in the 2018 Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework. 

    It is essential to address disrespectful terms related to disability in primary sources. See the Teaching Resource: Time Out – Spotlight Offensive Language in Primary Sources. Also see the Know and Support Students page.    

    Crossover Themes of Disability History

    State history standards and textbooks across the U.S. commonly emphasize a similar structure of topics in history. Even in states that do not yet explicitly list Disability History as a topic to be covered, the following themes offer places where teachers can integrate key moments and concepts of Disability History. (See a list of states that do include or require disability history in state legislation.)

    • Homes and Almshouses (Pre-History-1900) – Life in Colonial America - The Early Republic
    • Founding of Schools and Asylums (1820-1860) – Antebellum Reform Movements
    • Disabled Civil War Veterans (1861-1900) – Impacts of the Civil War - Growth of the Federal Government
    • Consequences of the Industrial Revolution and Immigration (1880-1940) - Impact of Social Darwinism and Eugenics 
    • Rehabilitation of WWI Veterans and Social Security (1917-1932) – Progressive Era - Impacts of WWI - New Deal - Responsibilities of Private Sector vs Government
    • Civil Rights including Disability Rights (1945-1990) – Cold War Era Social Movements
    • Passage of the Individuals with Disabilities with Education Act (IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (1977-1990) – Contemporary Challenges


    Disability History Curriculum

    Logo for Reform to Equal Rights: K-12 Disability History Curriclum

    Reform to Equal Rights: K-12 Disability History Curriculum - from Emerging America - 23 lessons in 7 units using 250 primary sources. Offers a coherent arc from K-12 and from 1800-2023. 


    Logo for Disability Equality Education shows a rainbow flowing into a smiling person's brain. Also reads: Eradicating disability stigma in education

    Disability Equality in Education - portal to dozens of disability-related lesson plans K-12 from Pennsylvania-based DEE, with links to a wealth of other lessons, videos and other resources from organizations across the U.S. 



    Logo for Choices program and selection of political buttons from disability history from the Smithsonian

    Resource Guide: Disability History and Studies - from the Choices Program at Brown University. Portal to educational resources to incorporate ideas and methods of disability studies into history and social studies, and to keep accessibility and anti-ableism in mind in any subject.



    Primary Source Collections on Disability History

    Explore–including a brief overview of the topic–in this Disability History primary source set from Emerging America.

    Disability History Museum

    • Logo of the Disability History Museum
      The wholly online Disability History Museum offers hundreds of primary sources, background essays, and other resources. The museum examines the people, lives, and institutions of disability from the founding of the nation to today. Looking across disabilities and ages, the site aims to help all users deepen understanding of variation and difference in national and community life.


    Library of Congress


    Further Disability History Collections


    Further Disability History Educational Resources

    Supreme Court Briefs on Disability Cases - from the American Bar Association - Link to Briefs of Case


    Selected Books and Articles on Disability History


    Painting of Lydia X. Z. Brown with t-shirt that says Disabled and Proud
    Reform to Equal Rights Disability History
    Comprehensive 23 inquiry-based lessons in 7 mini-units with 250 primary sources. 
    Field hospital with 6 beds, soldiers in casts, slings, and in beds.
    Example Lessons on Disability History

    A collection of two dozen teacher-written lessons with a range of disability history topics, written with accessibility in mind for their specific settings.

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