"Ivonne Nau, center, swings a sledgehammer to chip the curb on Hollywood Boulevard near the Chinese Theatre in order to draw attention to the lack of access of, and lack of curbs for, the handicapped. Photograph dated March 7, 1988"
Wheelchair-access demonstrators, March 1988

Bringing the History of Disability Back In

In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower recognized Hugo Deffner with the “Handicapped American of the Year” award. Despite our familiarity with accessible ramps, lifts, and other designs today, for much of the twentieth century (and before) people with disabilities were denied access to public and private spaces across the country. Deffner was an early promoter of accessible design in his hometown of Oklahoma City. To be recognized by the President of the United States for his efforts should have been a moment of great pride. Yet, Eisenhower and his staff did not take appropriate steps to make this ceremony accessible to wheelchair users. When he was called to the stage, Deffner used his wheelchair to move forward but needed to be lifted onto the stage by two Marines. Of course, this experience did not take away from Deffner’s achievements, but it was a stark reminder of the importance of accessible design and inclusivity. It is hard to identify the audience’s immediate reaction, but several government reports cite this event as a catalyst for the later passage of the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act. It is notable that concrete legislative action was not taken until nearly eleven years after this incident (and, unfortunately, eight years after Deffner’s death). This story is a reminder that people with disabilities are an essential part of the history we teach and that their stories should motivate inclusive change within our curriculums and classrooms.   

Many aspects of disability history do not require a stand-alone or separate unit and, in fact, they should be integrated into the lessons we are already teaching our students. The growing literature on disability history covers aspects of identity, the fight for inclusion and civil rights, and the opportunities and limits inherent in regulating access. These are topics that are addressed across multiple grade levels and give students a better understanding of how complex the fight for disability rights was (and continues to be). To be sure, these histories are also not solely confined to the context of the United States. For those who teach world history, there are books, such as The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, that have chapters on disability during the medieval period (for instance) as well as in other countries and continents. These examples will give students a better understanding of how disability has been understood across different time periods and regional contexts. Ultimately, by including people with disabilities in our teaching, we give our students a fuller picture of the range of historical actors and ensure a more inclusive framework for understanding the past. In the words of disability historian Douglas Baynton, “for a long time we never thought of disabled people, but they are everywhere, and our histories are defective without them.”

This month, the CHSSP is focusing on Disability history and we will provide several resources, including inquiry and primary source sets, picture books, and scholarly resources. These are not meant to be exhaustive, but to provide concrete opportunities to integrate the history of people with disabilities into teachers’ existing course materials. For example, in Accessible America, Bess Williamson discusses the history of accessible design in the United States. One useful example she provides is that, following World War II, the federal government spent money on prosthetic limb research to help veterans become more self-reliant after their wartime injuries. While this program did support injured servicemen, it also reinforced gender roles by insisting that men needed prosthetics to fulfill their role as the head of household and simultaneously reestablished a divide between people with disabilities who were deserving and undeserving of federal support. This example could easily fit into a discussion on the postwar period and the federal government's role in promoting an ideal of citizenship and domestic life across the country. While the legacy of government intervention in making the country more accessible has been positive, there have been missteps and unintended consequences. Bringing these stories in restores people with disabilities as full actors, agents, and participants in our broader national (and world) histories. 


In preparation for this blog post, I spent quite a bit of time looking into the story of Hugo Deffner. I first came across his story in Kim Nielsen’s A Disability History of the United States (2012, see page 165), and decided to look closer at primary source material. If you would like to learn more about this example, please visit these links: 

Remarks to the President' s Committee on the Employment of the Physically Handicapped

Hugo Deffner featured in The Sign-Post (1957)

National Commission on Architectural Barriers (1968)

A Barrier Free Environment Report (1972)

Ross Ruth Ellen. 50 Years of Progress: An Overview of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. Washington, DC, President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.


Image Citation: 

"Ivonne Nau, center, swings a sledgehammer to chip the curb on Hollywood Boulevard near the Chinese Theatre in order to draw attention to the lack of access of, and lack of curbs for, the handicapped. Photograph dated March 7, 1988" from Calisphere 

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