Colonial Era Disability Practice from My Hometown

In A Disability History of the United States, Kim E. Nielson provides an ambitious compilation of research about people with disabilities on this continent, from pre-1492 to present. It is a thorough reference work that I’ll be consulting for some time, but I was particularly interested in some of the less familiar early history.

A fascinating example to me was from colonial Watertown, Massachusetts—the town where I grew up. Samuel Coolidge was a preacher and Harvard graduate who in the 1740s was sent back to Watertown, his birthplace. At the time, the European-American practice put responsibility for the care of those who needed help and lacked family resources on the community they came from. Coolidge was described as “far gone in Despair, sordidness, and viciousness.” The community agreed to care for him on condition that he serve as the town schoolmaster, which he apparently did for more than a decade, at times wandering the streets ranting, at times locked into the school building to ensure he would show up in the morning; eventually, his condition worsened, and the town paid someone to give him room and board. (pp. 31-32)

While by no means a model of equity, my hometown seems to have accepted Samuel Coolidge’s common humanity at some level. Nielsen contrasts this understanding with the subsequent move to cast differences of body and mind in medical terms, ultimately to segregate those who don’t fit a typical mold into institutions. 

Nielsen makes an interesting connection to slavery in the transition from community to institutional care:  African bodies and minds were expressly valued only as standardized cogs in a production wheel. (pp. 41-47) To the slaver, difference in body or mind devalued an enslaved person, including physical disability and mental health disabilities that interrupted work. Disability labels like “drapetomania,” the disease of an enslaved person who tried to run away, were the result.

After abolition, the “science” of disability could be repurposed to uphold inequality among those newly proclaimed free. Nielson describes studies comparing census results in the post-abolition North with those in the still slaveholding South:  Northern communities, which had self-righteously embraced the abolition cause, seems to have turned to pejorative disability labels to replace slavery:  In the 1840 census, “one out of every 162 African Americans in the North were supposedly insane or idiots, but only one out of every 1,558 in the South.”(p. 64)

Today, Black and Latinx people are three times more likely to be labelled with a psychotic disorder than white people, according to a 2014 research review. In today’s census, rate of disability among Black Americans was 13.0% compared with 11.6% for all other races. Fewer than 20 percent of people with disabilities are employed, compared with almost two-thirds of those without disabilities. Everyone, of any race, to whom such labels are applied is marginalized. In this perhaps we see the legacy of “science” redefining the human community.

This is not to question the reality of disability, mental or physical, but to question the idea that communities should consist only of those who fit a certain mold. To me, the ADA’s integration and accommodation mandate point to a different way of moving forward—perhaps drawing a bit on the better side of Watertown’s history to find a place for each of us.