Module One: The History of Disability


What do you know about the history of disability?  When you hear the word disability, do you think of physical and attitudinal barriers?  Why do you think that happens?  When you hear these terms: eugenics, poster child, feeble-minded, savant, and cripple, do you know the origins of the words?  When did the disability rights movement begin and what groups are at the forefront of change? How much do you know about current disability policy?

The intent of this first module is to provide information from a variety of resources about the global history of disability and how our perceptions of and attitudes toward people with disabilities have changed – or not – over the past century.  We hope that by studying the materials presented in this module, you will reflect on the profound and painful journey taken by people with disabilities toward full inclusion and acceptance – a journey that all of us can hopefully impact in positive ways.


Please visit the following websites in the order given!  We have built an approach to disability history that takes you from early practices to current thoughts about self-determination and disability policy direction.  As you navigate through each site, you may want to take some time to jot notes about your immediate thoughts and impressions, perhaps writing a brief summary statement of what you learned from the site.


1.  There are several sections to view on this site. Click into the “Virtual Museum” section and learn about the role of media, medicine, society, and advocacy in disability policy and practices.

2. You will be brought to the library of the Disability History Museum (different from the first website), specifically the card catalog for the book “Christmas in Purgatory.”  All of the images from this book are provided along with the original captions; they are very powerful.  Please view as many of these as possible and take the time to read the captions.  They provide a lot of information about practices within institutions.

3.  This is the site of the Holocaust Museum.  This page provides some basic information about the Nazi government’s policy toward people with disabilities.  Scroll down to the bottom of the page for related links that provide in-depth information.

4. This site contains a wealth of information about the history of disability in America.  This link is the first of a series of discussions about the history of disability. You can find many more stories and articles by using the search function and typing in “history of disability.”

5. Please view “A Credo for Support,” created by Norm Kunc.  Please watch the original version (appears first on the page).  If you have time, look at the updated version spoken by members of a People First chapter in California.  It provides an interesting perspective on the powerful statements made in the original version. You can also view documentaries about Norm and Emma Kunc.

6.  This is the website of Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered, a national self-advocacy organization.  While here, be sure to look at their current newsletter.

Now that you’ve visited these sites, here are a few questions for further thought and discussion:

1.    Which site and information strongly affected you?  Why?
2.    How does disability history impact the work you perform for state-directed projects?