Elmhurst College: Rewriting the Story of Disability in America

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Rewriting the Story of Disability in America

The civil rights movements in the late 20th century that produced advances for African Americans, Latinos and women constitute one of the great chapters in American history. Less well known is the struggle waged by people with disabilities, at around the same time, to secure their own equal rights.

Lindsey Patterson, an assistant professor of history at Elmhurst, would like to change that. A scholar of disability activism, she argues that the struggle for rights for the disabled should be considered alongside other contemporary rights movements.

“Too often, rights for the disabled are seen as a kind of add-on,” she said. “The disabled were there, too,” working to secure their rights just as other groups did.

Patterson’s scholarship focuses on the too-often overlooked roots of the disability-rights movement and revises the standard chronology of the fight for equal access. Most popular accounts of gains for the disabled begin with the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Patterson said. (That landmark legislation prohibited employment discrimination in federally funded programs on the basis of disability and mandated equal access to public service, including housing and transportation.) But she says that it was the disability activism of the 1950s and 1960s that crucially paved the way for later legislative advances.

That activism shared some features with the better-known equal-rights movements of the time. The disabled, like other groups denied full rights, protested, picketed, lobbied legislators and organized on college campuses. Yet in some important ways, the struggle for disability rights was different. “Disabled Americans were segregated not just by laws and ideas, but by the built environment,” she said. It was their lack of access to public spaces that made them “back-door citizens.”

Patterson says that social conditions in the United States in the middle of the 20th century created fertile ground for a nascent disability rights movement. The polio epidemic of the 1940s and 1950s and the return of wounded World War II veterans made the disabled a highly visible presence in American life. Many of those disabled Americans forged durable bonds at the rehabilitation centers where they sought treatment or at the summer camps they attended as children.

In a paper published in the Journal of Social History last year, Patterson wrote that the friendships and networks they formed in those camps and hospitals later became the foundation for campus-based organizations that challenged stereotypes and successfully lobbied for change. Sometimes, that change came in dramatic fashion. At the University of Illinois in the early 1960s, disabled students, tired of waiting for local officials to provide equal access on streets, took sledgehammers to street curbs that had impeded the progress of wheelchairs.

Patterson became interested in issues connected to disability when she studied sign-language translation as an undergraduate at Madonna University in Michigan. “I loved being able to express myself with my hands and with facial expressions,” she said. “I found it fascinating.” She earned a master’s degree in Deaf Studies and History at Gallaudet University, where she was one of only two hearing students in her program. “It was the first time I really felt like a minority,” she said. “It opened my eyes and gave me an appreciation for some of the social conditions of disability.”

Her doctoral dissertation at Ohio State University examined the roots of disabled Americans’ fight for equal access. Patterson is now exploring that topic in greater depth in a book that she said would be the first full-length academic history of the movement. She has also introduced a new course at Elmhurst, Disability in America, the first survey of the topic ever offered at the College. She will teach the course in the 2014 Spring Term.

Patterson said she was encouraged by the interest Elmhurst students have shown in the class and in the history of disability. “I weave questions about disability into many of my courses, and students always respond enthusiastically because they find they can relate to the questions much more than they expected,” she said. “Nearly everyone, at some point in their lives, will experience disability, either through a disabled family member or an elderly grandparent, or by suffering an injury. But students rarely have the opportunity to think critically about the presence of disability in our society. I’m looking forward to some wonderful discussions.”

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