No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1850-1930
Sarah Frances Rose

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of Texas at Arlington

Primary Discipline

Special Education
My book project explores the meaning of citizenship for disabled workers in the United States between 1850 and 1930. During these decades, policymakers, employers, and the public created disability as a new policy problem. Policymakers also came to define people with disabilities as unproductive citizens: a concept that has been central to disability policy since the early twentieth century. By the end of World War I, disability had become synonymous with public dependency and the inability to be self-sufficient. This new category of disability incorporated populations that policymakers and the public had long considered distinct: people who worked in the mainstream labor market, impoverished people who could not work (and relied on public aid), and people with both acquired and congenital impairments. Policymakers’ efforts to reeducate this diverse array of disabled people into productivity met with little success.This project traces why economic citizenship—the ability to be self-supporting and financially independent—proved increasingly elusive for disabled people between the 1850s and 1930s. During these decades, policymakers abandoned traditional views of dependent disabled people as members of the “deserving poor.” Educators and charity reformers began to argue that even people labeled as “idiots” could —and should—fulfill the civic obligation to be self-sufficient, and therefore developed work and training programs in state idiot asylums. At the same time, disabled people who could support themselves began having trouble finding work because of mechanization, employers’ changing notions of what made a good worker, and the design of workmen’s compensation policy—except for a brief period at Ford Motor Company. In response, policymakers pushed for the vocational re-education (or rehabilitation) of disabled people in state asylums and sheltered workshops such as Goodwill Industries. In theory, vocational rehabilitation would allow disabled people to become productive and thereby regain full citizenship status. In practice, however, the structure of rehabilitation programs, the changing labor market, and the complexity of disability itself trapped people in rehabilitation. Ultimately, people with disabilities were relegated to economic dependency and second-class citizenship.
About Sarah Frances Rose

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