Sarah F. Rose. No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s-1930s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. 398 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-2489-1; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-3008-3.
Reviewed by Holly Caldwell (University of Delaware)
Published on H-Disability (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, individuals with disabilities came to be regarded as unproductive citizens. Prior to this shift, people with varying degrees and types of disabilities performed various duties in the home, on farms, or in the wage labor market and, to put it simply, were integral parts of the fabric of everyday American life. In No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s-1930s, disability and labor historian Sarah F. Rose examines the historical origins of disability as a political, social, and cultural phenomenon, and the causes of the marked shift in how individuals with disabilities were viewed. Rose contends that as American society transitioned to industrial capitalism, it led many employers to demand workers who had “fully functional, intact bodies that could serve as interchangeable parts” (p. 111).
This book is very accessible for audiences with little or no knowledge of the histories of disability or labor. It is divided into seven fairly chronological chapters. These chapters are framed by an introduction and conclusion that provide readers with the historical context as to how “disabled” bodies came to be regarded as unproductive in the cultural imagination, a phenomenon that persisted well into the twentieth century. The author skillfully presents a narrative that investigates how public policies functioned in practical terms and how they affected the lives of everyday Americans with disabilities and their families. The introduction of workmen’s compensation laws in the 1910s—a public policy initiative that was designed to prevent economic dependency—had the unintended consequences of discouraging American employers from hiring individuals with disabilities, thus often aggravating their already-dire economic situations. Moreover, Rose’s study underscores how hierarchies of race, class, and gender intertwined with how disabilities were viewed.
According to Rose, the common twentieth-century notion of equating “disability” with “unproductivity, poor citizenship, and dependency on public or charitable assistance was truly an invention” (p. 13). Drawing on archival and census records, she demonstrates how the families and communities of disabled individuals understood productivity and issues of care prior to the emergence of large-scale wage labor and intense urbanization. The nationwide spread of “idiot” asylums in the mid-nineteenth century illustrates the striking difference in how disabled individuals were viewed by their close relatives and communities as opposed to administrators of the institutions that often housed them. Families understood that their family member’s disability was simply part of a “broad spectrum of productivity that varied according to age, gender, and ability,” whereas administrators and policymakers tended to view those same individuals as incapable—and unwilling—to care for themselves (p. 15).
This widespread view that disabled people lacked self-sufficiency was shaped in large part by England’s Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601, which categorized the poor into two distinct groups—the deserving and the undeserving. In short, the deserving poor were those whose poverty was through no fault of their own and included people recognized as having impairments or widowed women with young children. The undeserving poor, on the other hand, were poor because of personal vices, such as alcoholism, laziness, or other character flaws. Although individuals with disabilities, or those who were categorized as idiots, simpletons, and imbeciles, among others, fell into the former category, Rose demonstrates that this classification often contributed to their neglect by parochial officials. In addition, parish officials often held the belief that such individuals were not “deserving” of state intervention and education programs, a view that would leave these populations in the lurch in the early twentieth century.
Yet the economic depression of the 1870s led many parochial officials to question and redefine who conformed to the deserving poor category. Many policymakers argued that certain individuals needed to be segregated from pernicious elements in society, such as those engaging in prostitution, alcohol abuse, and immorality, and placed into asylums. This neo-Lamarckian set of beliefs maintained that many of these undesirable traits were inherited and would be passed down to future generations, thus potentially placing undue economic and social burdens on the nation. These early eugenicist notions and policies persisted well into the twentieth century, with many reformers asserting that a family's germ plasm or poor environment were direct contributors to an individual’s propensity toward socially undesirable behaviors. In the period following the First World War, Rose points out, racialized ideals of fitness and productivity also influenced the ways in which companies made hiring decisions. While employers were more likely to hire veterans with disabilities than disabled civilians, African American veterans did not experience such favoritism and indeed found themselves barred from employment or tracked into low-paying unskilled or semi-skilled positions.
As mechanized factory labor became central to the American economy in the early twentieth century, employers began to demand workers who had “intact” bodies. By the early twentieth century, however, hundreds of people labeled “feebleminded”—a new term that had become synonymous with the inability to function in everyday society—were moved into paid positions as farm laborers, domestic servants, laundresses, and seamstresses. Rose draws on the case study of Charles Bernstein to highlight how one individual who once held eugenicist views introduced efforts to revolutionize the training of asylum inmates. Bernstein, who served as superintendent of Rome State Custodial Asylum for Unteachable Idiots from 1903 until his death in 1942, implemented the colony system in the New York-based asylum. While his colony system proved to be only marginally successful in the short term, it had long-term effects in that he advocated the integration of asylum inmates into mainstream society and helped to overturn the assumption that only fully functional and intact bodies could contribute to the wage labor economy.
Rose notes that as American workplaces became “ever more mechanized, and as businesses introduced mass production techniques and welfare capitalist programs, employers began to demand workers with intact, fully functional bodies: namely, standardized workers who could themselves serve as interchangeable parts” (p. 111). The case study of the Ford Motor Company also underscores how not all employers espoused draconian practices of only hiring fully functional and intact bodies. The Ford Motor Company serves as a useful lens to understand how some employers believed that the increasing mechanization of factory jobs could expand the range of employable bodies. Although most American employers had begun to embrace the idea that “disabled” people could not be efficient, productive workers, Henry Ford recognized that many Americans lived and worked with what we now call disabilities. This assumption was not new. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “disabling” injuries such as crushed or missing fingers did not signify disability but rather experience in a particularly dangerous field. The rejection of injured adult employees as too disabled to work represented what Rose describes as “a dramatic shift in traditional understandings of the impact of injuries and old age on productivity” (p. 112). It is important to note that this shift not only limited a disabled individual’s access to work so that they could support themselves and their families but also prevented such individuals from fulfilling these duties. In a period when many employers began relying on medical examinations to diagnose impairments and identify “fully functional bodies” so as to eliminate potential or even existing disabled laborers, Ford represented an outlier in that he used medical examinations to place disabled laborers into positions that best suited them.
The Ford Motor Company’s progressive policy of hiring disabled or severely injured employees, however, was rather short-lived. As Rose aptly demonstrates, the introduction and adoption of workmen’s compensation laws in the 1910s marked the moment when American employers opted to not hire people with disabilities. Although workmen’s compensation laws were a public policy initiative intended to prevent dependency, they actually exacerbated the problem. Even the Ford Motor Company abruptly changed its attitude and policies toward injured and disabled workers with the advent of these laws. According to Rose, the company actively resisted paying out on workmen’s compensation cases. Rose argues that while Progressive Era reformers had originally intended for workmen’s compensation laws to prevent widespread economic hardship on the disabled and their families, these laws had the unintended consequence of making employees more acutely aware of their disabilities—and encouraged employers to actively screen for them, thus often leading to the ostracism of disabled workers.
No Right to Be Idle analyzes the ever-changing meanings and perceptions of disability, and how these have evolved over time. Rose points to the combination of shifting charity policies and the industrializing economy as factors that compromised families’ abilities to care over a long term for their disabled relatives. One of this book’s greatest contributions to the historiography is that it reconstructs what has historically gone undocumented, namely, the lives of disabled individuals and the various types of work they performed. Finally, this work draws attention to a contemporary issue that continues to plague Americans with disabilities. In the introduction, Rose cites alarming statistics from 2017 which demonstrate that 70 percent of working-age adults with disabilities are not employed, and nearly 30 percent live in poverty. These figures underscore how disability and poverty have historically coexisted. No Right to Be Idle should interest disability and labor historians but also readers who are interested in how historically rooted economic and social policies continue to influence the current lives and realities of individuals with disabilities.
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Holly Caldwell. Review of Rose, Sarah F., No Right to Be Idle: The Invention of Disability, 1840s-1930s.
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