People with Disabilities



People with disabilities are defined as those people experiencing "any condition that makes it more difficult for a person to do certain activities or have equitable access within a given society" (Wikipedia). People with disabilities in nineteenth-century America faced a variety of different options and experiences based on both their region, age, and specific disability.

Early in the nineteenth century, many communities saw supporting people with disabilities as a local matter; however, as the nineteenth century progressed and cities and their populations (including people with disabilities) grew exponentially, many state governments took responsibility for supporting people with disabilities. That support most often took the form of almshouses or hospitals in which residents lived permanently, usually in rural areas for fear of urban environments' negative impacts on health. Different religious, medical, and reform organizations took different approaches to the treatment of disabilities, including the treatment of a person's morals in addition to medical care. Like many other branches of medicine, popular medical understandings of many disabilities remained incorrect and even harmful in the nineteenth century, particularly the concept of eugenics, or the idea that controlling genetics could improve or even perfect humanity. Doctors espousing these beliefs sometimes conducted forced sterilizations and lobotomies on their patients, either to prevent their reproduction or to reduce mental health issues.

The devastation of the American Civil War and the increase of people with war-related disabilities brought much more attention to the study of disabilities and their treatment, but ultimately humane and ethical methods of caring for people with disabilities remained far in the future. CWRGM adopts the term "People with disabilities" to foreground individuals' personhood over their status or physical condition (National Park Service; Wikipedia).

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