Massachusetts Historical Society


Disability & the American Past: Disappeared Disabilities


Beth Linker, University of Pennsylvania

Mara Mills, New York University

Leroy Moore, Krip-Hop Nation

Moderated by Ola Ojewumi, Project ASCEND

Note on accessibility: All online programs in this series are in English and have ASL interpreters and live captioning. If you have questions about accessibility, please contact

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When the history of people with disabilities is discussed, the same names pop up: figures like Helen Keller or Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, accounts of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman’s activism have often failed to mention their disabilities or think about how their disability affected their work and lives. Drawing from her forthcoming book, Slouch, Beth Linker demonstrates how John F. Kennedy’s disabling back pain, while often hidden from the public eye, advanced the medicalization of the condition, but did little to advance the rights and protections of the growing number of U.S. citizens who experienced a similar debility to that of the President. Referencing her research in the Thomas Edison archives, Mills will discuss myths about Edison’s relationship to assistive technology, as well as the value of the collection for disability history, given the extensive correspondence from deaf and hard of hearing contemporaries. Leroy Moore will talk about the individuals featured in his book, Black Disabled Ancestors, and what their stories can teach us today. Ola Ojewumi will then lead panelists in a discussion about the effects of the erasure of disability in history, efforts to reframe this history, and what we can learn from how the disabilities of people from politicians to activists have informed their actions that changed history.

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