[Note: This is a review of the Amazon Kindle e-book edition. Language is important in disability communities today. The language contained in this review, identical to that used by the author’s study being reviewed, was not considered controversial at the time in which it was widely used. Using this language in its historical context here should not be confused for any endorsement of it. Furthermore, being autistic myself and preferring the use of identity-first over person-first language means that I avoid phrases like “people with disabilities.” The disabled are referred to as disabled people. When referencing modern discussions and understandings of disability, I use appropriately modern terms, like “intellectual disability” or “cognitive disability,” rather than “idiot,” “feeble-minded,” or “mentally retarded.”]
In No Right to be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s-1930s, disability and labor historian Sarah F. Rose sheds light on the historical origins of disability as a social and political phenomenon. She traces the “invention” of disability through the rapid changes taking place in the decades following the Civil War as the US emerged as the world’s preeminent industrial power. On first glance you might question what a cognitively disabled individual has in common with a wheelchair user suffering from a chronic illness or with a former factory worker now only mobile with a prosthetic limb. Today, we call this “disability.” But how we specifically define disability today has not existed forever and all time.
Disability activists in the 1970s, influenced especially by the wider social movements of the era, grappled with the inequity and discrimination so central in their lives: if disabled people want to work and can work with appropriate accommodations in place, and moreover, be accepted within their communities, then “why can’t we?” Out of the disability rights movement of the time came the social model of disability. And Rose’s Invention of Disability fits firmly within the social model’s framework. Rose argues that while our modern political conception of disability comes out of the way disability was “invented” over time through a combination of social and economic changes and public policies, the way disabled people are commonly perceived as “unproductive” and dependent on assistance has remained constant, at least in the context of the way our society remains organized since the Civil War.
Rose traces the rise of nineteenth century “idiot” asylums back to Jacksonian era middle-class reformers steeped in the moral ethos of Protestant revivalism, what historians generally call the Second Great Awakening. These reformers espoused an individualist moralism concerned with changing the evils of modern society by improving the individual. No evil escaped their crusade: from the abolitionist movement against slavery, pauperism, prostitution, crime, lunacy, and later the “feeble-minded.”
The antebellum economy was still overwhelmingly agricultural and a feeble-minded family member could be cared for and learn to be productive on the farm or in the household. Moreover, feeble-minded family members could help care for the elderly in the home or other siblings when ill. These circumstances certainly did not exist for all families. In the developing towns and cities, frequent economic crises meant swelling almshouses and poorhouses. These housed the chronically unemployed (paupers), but also all manner of “lunatics” and “idiots” from families who could not afford to care for them. Penitentiaries also housed “idiot” criminals, their crimes usually a result of being abandoned in poverty by carers. The feeble-minded collected in almshouses or lunatic asylums and penitentiaries often came from poor families who abandoned them or for whom one or more family caregivers had died. Some were abandoned at birth and left in the care of orphanages, though most orphanages were unwilling to take in obviously disabled children, leaving the almshouse the remaining option unless another family or relative was willing to take them in.
The feeble-minded were treated, to this point, as an uneducable monolith. The work of a French doctor in “idiot” asylums in Paris effectively overturned these assumptions. Even the worst-case “idiots” were amenable to improvement, and the first generation of superintendents of asylums for the feeble-minded in the pre-civil war years took on the task of teaching “useless,” unproductive idiots the virtues of work. There was no hard definition of “idiocy” at this time. Rose states that idiocy “encompassed people with a wide range of impairments, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy, deafness, and what would later be described as autism, as well as cognitive disabilities that could arise from thyroid disorders, head injuries, and high fevers. But in general, “idiot” referred to a person who was not able to care for himself or herself, do useful labor, or understand the legal consequences of his or her actions.”
The feeble-minded then have a variety of recognizable diagnoses today, including intellectual disability, Down Syndrome, and autism. Because autism was not initially described until the 1940s, we can reasonably conclude that a significant percentage of those referred to as “idiots” were autistic, likely with accompanying cognitive disabilities. Moreover, because autism is recognized as a spectrum condition, the terms “imbecile” and “moron” used in the context of the eugenics movement would similarly encompass unidentified autistic individuals. While early asylum superintendents classified the feeble-minded based on perceived educability and productive capacity, eugenicists would later perfect the hierarchy around heredity with “low grade” and “high grade” idiots at the bottom, classified on their perceived uselessness to the human gene pool; imbeciles occupied an intermediate position between high grade idiots and morons. The eugenicists’ moron, considered the highest grade of feeblemindedness, would today be an individual with a “mild” intellectual disability but capable of work and obedience, or even an individual labeled as so-called “high functioning” autistic. At the time, however, all manner of individuals were classified as feeble-minded, including those who today would not be recognized as disabled at all, but who were simply born into a life of poverty, crime, and other “sins” like addiction or prostitution or homosexuality.
The goal of the earliest asylums for the feeble-minded was to educate their pupils to be productive members within their families and communities. This often involved teaching self-care skills and hygiene, taking the “burden” off families whose labors were better spent in the home and on the farm. Success was achieved when a pupil could demonstrate her or his ability to work and thereby avert dependence on charity and public assistance. At a time when reformers, especially abolitionists, extolled the virtue of “free labor,” that is compensated labor and self-sufficiency, dependence on public assistance was associated with iniquity.
Rose quotes Boston reformer and asylum superintendent Samuel Gridley Howe, who in 1848 anticipated some of the ideas of the eugenics movement half a century later. She highlights Howe’s influential 1848 report because the ideas contained therein would shape public discourse around the feeble-minded for decades: as burdensome, “parasitic” dependence on families and the community as well as the contaminating effect of idiot “immorality” on local communities and society at large.
There are at least a thousand persons of this class,” said Howe, “who not only contribute nothing to the common stock, but who are ravenous consumers; who are idle and often mischievous, and who are dead weights upon the material prosperity of the State. But this is not all; they are even worse than useless; they generally require a good deal of watching to prevent their doing mischief, and they occupy a considerable part of the time of more industrious and valuable persons…. Every such person is like an Upas tree, that poisons the whole moral atmosphere around him.
At this time, the poor were popularly perceived to belong to two groups: the deserving and undeserving poor. The deserving poor included widows, orphans, or “unproductive” individuals with congenital or acquired physical impairments, people who could not easily be blamed for their immorality. The undeserving poor were chronically unemployed paupers given to alcoholism, crime, madness, or licentiousness. With the rise of the eugenics movement, feeble-minded women became especially important as they could pass on their “idiocy” to future generations.
In response to a rapidly changing economy, the decades following the Civil War saw the goals of “idiot” asylums change from one of education, productivity, and reintegration into the community to one of “custodial” care, that is permanent institutionalization.
It is easy to read our present understanding of disability and disabled people back into history. Doing so reveals that disabled people have always existed. Yet how people with a variety of congenital or acquired physical impairments have integrated into or been marginalized within a given society has a lot to do with the way that society is organized to meet people’s subsistence needs. In A Disability History of the United States, historian Kim Nielson shows us how various North American indigenous groups understood disability: as a natural part of life. The value of an individual was based around her or his contribution to the community. An individual was not cast out for an inability to contribute on the same level as another. Disability was understood as a natural occurrence, some born impaired, others sustaining injuries in war, others falling ill. Your contribution to the community might change following an injury; an individual born impaired may never join a war party but contribute elsewhere in the maintenance of the community; illness and old age also meant changing roles.
Not so dissimilar, Rose states that in the antebellum decades, families saw their feeble-minded children or otherwise disabled family members as falling on a “spectrum of ability.”
Families did not view productivity in the simple black-and-white terms suggested by asylum superintendents, nor did the ability or inability to do useful labor determine an individual’s value in their eyes. Rather, relatives understood their “idiotic” children in light of the fact that people with diverse bodies and capacities had long performed domestic and manual labor in an economy and society of farms and small communities; such an economy also helped to sustain relatives’ capacity for caring. Indeed, such individuals were seen as simply part of a broad spectrum of productivity that varied according to age, gender, and ability.
The rapid transition to an industrial wage labor economy had profound effects on families’ capacity to care for disabled children or otherwise disabled family members. Men and women compelled to labor in factories for a wage made families more vulnerable than ever to economic crises, and this had a significant impact on the ability of families to house and care for their disabled children.
Asylum superintendents began to see that returning feeble-minded pupils to their communities as moral, productive contributors required that jobs actually be available for them. But the changing social relations of industrial capitalism threw a wrench into traditional family structures. Initially, asylums wished to focus on those pupils from families who could pay privately for their education and personal upkeep. But inevitably as demand grew owing to the “success” of feeble-minded children returning home, asylums were forced to take on more and more public charity cases, often some of the “worst cases” wallowing in poorhouses with nowhere else to go aside from a lunatic asylum. During the economic crisis of the 1870s, superintendents found there was no available work to return successfully normalized children to within their communities, leading to superintendents’ gradually changing priorities away from education and discharge from the facility towards permanent institutionalization. Educating and instilling the virtues of work eventually gave way to training inmates to be productive within the confines of the asylum. Asylums had to rely on private charity and public funds to maintain themselves. Some inmates could be trained to labor unpaid to help offset the costs of institutional maintenance. And so developed within the asylum a workforce divided on gender lines, whereby female inmates labored unpaid in domestic upkeep of the asylum as well as in caring for the uneducable “worst cases,” while male inmates labored unpaid in the construction of separate buildings, in the boiler room, operating laundry and other equipment, and especially on segregated farms that helped offset the cost of feeding the asylum’s growing permanent population.
Asylum inmates, at least the ones perceived most amenable to training, education, and compliance, desired finding work for themselves outside the institution, and a few were successful as hired farm hands, working under supervision of a shopkeeper, or domestic workers. Nevertheless, most did not find anything close to this kind of “success.” Given the flood of immigration in the post-civil war years, the cognitively disabled were at a huge disadvantage in competing with “able-bodied” workers on the labor market, especially during economic downturns. Without family or community support, those lucky enough to be discharged from the asylum, unable to find work, would return back to the asylum or languish in poorhouses.
The transition to mass production factory work and the logic of competition inherent to capitalist production made the feeble-minded worker an inherently unreliable investment. The feeble-minded capable of work, however limited in capacity by the standards of efficiency, would come to be largely excluded from the labor market.
Working conditions in nineteenth and early twentieth century industry were generally appalling. Workplace injuries, often debilitating, were guaranteed for many, if not most depending on the industry. Accidental death on the job was not uncommon. Workers risked amputated limbs, fingers, permanent paralysis, traumatic brain injuries, burns. In fact, disabling injuries were so common that Rose describes how it was understood as a quasi-cultural marker of poverty and working-class life. Injuries that we would rightly see today as disabling were seen by workers as a minor setback (or none at all) in the way of getting back to work.
Similar to the way disability within middle-class and farming families was understood as falling on a spectrum of ability, whether individuals were born disabled, developed acute and/or chronic illnesses, or became impaired by injury, workers acquiring disabilities from workplace injuries were not automatically barred from employment. But also similar to the way rapid economic and social change necessitated change to family structures and its ability to care for a feeble-minded child or adult within the home and community, the logic of competition inherent to capitalist production meant that disabled workers would increasingly be shut out from the labor market as inefficient. Given the choice, what capitalist would invest in a disabled over a non-disabled worker, given the disabled worker’s inability to produce surplus value at the same rate? This was a time of both mass immigration and the rise of mass production, and there was no shortage of cheap able-bodied labor to fill unskilled positions. The rate of exploitation is higher for the able-bodied.
Rose traces the rise of modern political conceptions of disability through rapid economic and social changes which would come to effectively exclude from the labor market both those with congenital disabilities and physically acquired workplace injuries, gradually creating a separate class of individuals permanently dependent on public assistance, exactly what reformers steeped in the Protestant work ethic wished to avert. Ironically, Progressive era public policy reform efforts like the rise of Workmen’s Compensation laws served to further exclude disabled workers from the labor market. Rose illustrates how the rise of Workmen’s Compensation laws in the first decades of the twentieth century compelled employers to introduce physical exam requirements prior to hire, effectively barring many disabled workers from employment as the liability of a previously injured worker who may sustain a second injury on the job became too great.
Rose dedicates an entire chapter to Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company for his initial willingness to hire on disabled workers. She shows that Ford was an outlier among industrialists. Because Ford relied so much on piecework in his plants, many jobs could be found, and indeed were found suitable to disabled workers. Ford plant managers were willing to move disabled workers to different departments if need be. In some instances, blind workers were capable of performing their job better than seeing workers.
Workers injured in a Ford plant were often able to come back to work at the same pay rate despite the severity of the injury and the need to be placed elsewhere in the plant. Ford proved to be the exception to the rule, however. By the 1920s, with the rise of Workmen’s Compensation laws, Ford was no longer quite the exception. In court, Ford actively went after workers injured on the job to deny their claims in some cases. Nevertheless, Ford employed more disabled workers into the 1930s than any other comparable employer. For Rose, this is evidence that with the right accommodations, disabled people need not be excluded, even in heavy industry.
Rose also highlights Goodwill Industries’ sheltered workshop experiments employing disabled workers. Like reform movements before it, the goal was to instill the Protestant work ethic, the virtue of work, to reduce the growing sins of pauperism, vice, and dependence.
Goodwill Industries was just one of hundreds of sheltered workshops to emerge during the tail end of the nineteenth and the early twentieth century. It exemplified how the Protestant work ethic and fears about encouraging dependency shaped how workshop managers approached the problem of “disabled” people–those whose bodies had been deemed largely unfit for wage labor by a changing economy and public policies.
…the founders of other sheltered workshops hoped to address the ways in which mechanization, employers’ growing desire for workers with fully intact and interchangeable bodies, and workmen’s compensation laws had begun to exclude disabled workers from the mainstream labor market and self-support.
…sheltered workshop managers discovered that even their institutions could not escape the logic of efficiency that had so pervaded the mainstream economy. To ensure Goodwill Industries’ survival, [there was] little choice but to adopt piecework methods, rate workers by efficiency, conduct time-motion studies, and limit the number of disabled workers hired.
Rose admits that Ford did not hire disabled people as a gesture of philanthropy. She argues he had an advanced understanding of the modern industrial economy he operated within. But while the story of Ford initially hiring disabled workers on a scale incomparable to other industries is an interesting one, I fail to see it as evidence of what could have been had other employers followed suit. Ford being the exception to the rule requires us to focus on the rule, and the rule is the logic of capitalist accumulation and competition. A capitalist ignores the logic of competition at his own peril, and in the context of rapid economic expansion, the inefficient must come to rely on public assistance and charity owing to their inability to be exploited at the same rate as the able-bodied.
Today, disabled unemployment remains twice that of the non-disabled. The problem of unemployment remains especially significant for the cognitively or otherwise neurologically disabled despite federal protection in hiring and firing from the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The astronomical rate of unemployment among autistic adults today serves as just one example of this. Rose’s work in No Right to be Idle is important because she sees those with cognitive disabilities and those with acquired physical impairments as intersecting at a certain point in US history, creating the disabled generally as a heterogeneous group apart from mainstream society. The social model of disability theorized decades after Rose ends her study proves the extent to which disability was entrenched as an entity unto itself, with an entire subsection of the US population marginalized as “unproductive” and dependent on public assistance.
By the 1920s, people with many different types and origins of disabilities had been pushed out of household economies and the paid labor market… Their bodies were now deemed unproductive, or insufficiently productive, by employers and lawmakers–a shift compounded by changes in family capacity, the rapidly evolving labor market, public policies that sought to deter dependence, and the mutability and complexity of disability itself.
But “disabled people continued to seek paid work and to labor, albeit often for minimal or no pay, while often being told that they had “no right to be idle.” “…the common twentieth-century notion of equating “disability” with unproductivity, poor citizenship, and dependency on public or charitable assistance was, truly, an invention.”
You might note that I’ve mentioned little about the experience of disabled black people in this review. Indeed, being black and disabled requires its own separate treatment altogether. Black people were in many cases already excluded from employment on the basis of skin color before their disability even need be considered. Like disability from injury in white and immigrant working-class communities, disability within the black community was also a hallmark of poverty, though in the post-Civil War years many black people were disabled owing to the abysmal conditions and treatment on plantations and the unpaid labor they performed as slaves.
Disabled black people were discriminated against as World War I veterans attempting to gain access to vocational rehabilitation, something Rose talks about in the last chapter of her book. But Rose’s study left much to be desired in telling the history of disabled black people following the Civil War, and this is not meant as criticism, but rather that it deserves its own study. “Idiot” asylums held many fewer black inmates than whites. It is unclear if this was intentional or not. Rose highlights the case of a black feeble-minded woman who became well known at the Rome State Custodial School in Rome, NY. She was one of the first female inmates paroled at the institution, which developed on a segregated colony model. The school sought to teach work skills that could translate into productivity offsite in institution-run “colonies.” Matilda Connor, “one of the few African-Americans at the [Rome State Custodial School], may have been one of those who preferred the community of the asylum.”
Despite receiving praise for her work ethic and musical talents in nearly every issue of the Rome Custodial Herald [asylum-run newspaper], Connor remained at the asylum throughout the 1910s–perhaps by choice. Instead, she ran the “girls’ sewing room,” learned to play the viola for the institution’s orchestra, and became well known as the ever-reliable “telephone girl” for the asylum.
Rose highlights Connor only to show how “some inmates built communities within the asylum.” Rose also mentions the story of an African-American shipbuilder who after sustaining a leg fracture could no longer work. Being effectively barred from returning to his previous job, he went on to form his own business. This is an extreme example unlikely replicable for most black workers. There is much more to be told about the story of black disabled people, in state-run asylums or in and out of the workplace.
Institutions for warehousing “idiots” declined by the second half of the twentieth century giving way by the 1970s to the independent living movement, which sought to remove the intellectually disabled from abusive asylums and segregated farms in favor of community-based living. Nevertheless, the way our society is organized makes it incapable of ever truly integrating them as “productive” workers. Little different from postbellum America, the value of an individual is necessarily based on their productivity, on their ability to produce profit for an employer. Today, section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows for disabled workers to be paid at subminimum rates.
The US Department of Labor states of section 14(c) of FLSA:
A worker who has disabilities for the job being performed is one whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability, including those relating to age or injury. Disabilities which may affect productive capacity include blindness, mental illness, developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, alcoholism and drug addiction.
Rose’s work in No Right to be Idle is to be commended for pushing the social model of disability forward by revealing the social and economic changes underscoring concomitant changes in public perception of bodies and minds born impaired or acquiring impairment in the workplace. She asks us to consider what about impairments of whatever sort need be political. She shows us that historically disabled people do want to work, do wish to contribute to and be accepted as part of their communities. My question for Rose is whether she concludes, in the end, that liberal reform is ultimately capable of “solving” the problem of disability. I do think reforms can improve the quality of life of disabled people. But the logic of capitalism that created the disabled as a separate class of citizens cannot be reformed away. Henry Ford does not point any way forward. Middle-class moralism that sees an end to society’s ills through changing individuals is equally a dead end. An entire reorganization of the way human beings produce for their subsistence needs is required. A society that values individuals above all on their ability to produce profit for an employer will always require inventing a class of “unproductive,” poor and dependent people. It follows that accommodating the needs of variously disabled people would after decades of fighting require federal legislation to guarantee basic civil rights and protections. This is not and will never be enough.
The autistic community today has for decades now fought for acceptance of neurological differences within communities and in the workplace. Autistic people have argued for decades now that autism comes with skills that many employers value in their employees. Some employers, largely tech giants, have begun to respond with hiring programs designed to employ autistic people. This is important given the context of staggering unemployment for autistic adults. However, the largely liberal framework of identity politics that pervades disability rights today is incapable of addressing what the social model of disability sought to reveal: that it is the way our society is arranged and organized that oppresses disabled people. Winning employment for some autistic people is undoubtedly a worthy achievement. Long-term however, the heterogeneity of disability and disability rights politically is disarmed by a focus on winning the right of disabled people to be exploited by employers that have excluded them for decades. Only a thorough reorganization of our society based around meeting the needs of all over the prosperity of a handful will move the dark and shameful era of treating disabled people as less than human into a museum where it belongs.