English Dutch French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish


Disability in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Published on Tue, 06/11/2024

A man in a suit makes signs in American Sign Language.
George Veditz. Preservation of the Sign language. (1913). Library of Congress.

By Rich Cairn, History, Civics & Social Studies Inclusion Specialist, CES

Teaching about Disability in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Slides from presentation by Rich Cairn at the virtual conference: A More Perfect Union: Exploring America's Story in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, June 17, 2024

A More Perfect Union: Exploring America's Story in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era Virtual Conference was organized by the Chicago History Museum, Loyola University Chicago, and the University of Illinois Chicago with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. 



Schools for Deaf, blind, deaf-blind, and students with intellectual disabilities, as well as asylums were founded by reformers in the early 1800s. By the end of the century, nearly every state had these institutions. Conditions became crowded and poorly served. Residency peaked in the 1950s, when disabled advocates and their families began to demand better treatment and closure of most large institutions. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act further empowered citizens to achieve independence and better treatment. 

Disabled Veterans

The Civil War caught both sides utterly unprepared to care for wounded and disabled soldiers. Volunteers leaped into action. The U.S. Government eventually developed vast systems of hospitals, soldiers' homes, and pensions for Union veterans. By century's end, there was a backlash to the cost and a rising stigma toward disability. 

Immigration Infrastructure

With two 1882 immigration laws, Congress established a system to exclude people with disabilities as well as Asians. Immigrants were stigmatized as inherently weak and diseased, as well as politically dangerous.  

Eugenics Movement

Along with efforts to constrain people with disabilities and dark-skinned immigrants, the eugenics movement targeted its false science against people of color and poor people. The Catholic Church and some others objected at the time, though the movement was popular with elite conservatives and progressives alike. Eugenics inspired hate groups in the United States and the Nazis in Europe. The United States Supreme Court approved as states passed laws to sterilize people with disabilities and people of color without their permission and sometimes without their knowledge. Some 60,000 suffered this mistreatment into the 1970s. Yet in the 21st century, some states set up compensation funds for some victims. 

Long Arc of Disability Rights

Disabled people began to create schools and other services and advocacy groups by the early 1800s. By the early 1900s, organizations of as well as for people with disabilities emerged in many forms across country, starting with Deaf and blind advocates. Resources and organization grew through the 1960s when groups began to band together across disability. Grassroots organizing exploded through the 1970s and 1980s, leading to 1990 passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disability advocates continue to develop and evolve, including a new emphasis on capturing and sharing disability history. 


Curricula, Primary Sources, and Other Resources

Emerging America


Other Resources on Disability in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era


Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.