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The Massachusetts Office on Disability (MOD) is pleased to present our month-long blog series that will provide a brief history of significant disability policies, developments, and figures in the United States and Massachusetts throughout the past two centuries. Under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 6 Section 15LLLLL, the month of October commemorates Disability History Month.  This observance is dedicated to “increase awareness and understanding of the contributions made by persons with disabilities.”

Welcome to Part One: 1776-1900. The period from our nation’s founding to the end of the Nineteenth Century saw many hardships for Americans with disabilities.  Exploitation, exclusion, ignorance and poor living conditions marked this early time in U.S. history.  However, the era also saw the founding of many of the country’s most renowned academic institutions for people with disabilities, important inventions, and the beginning of a change in societal attitude towards disability.

Note: The Massachusetts Office on Disability recognizes that the following Timeline includes language used to describe people with disabilities that is deemed inappropriate and insensitive today.  However, we maintain that these descriptions are being used in their historical context for educational purposes. MOD’s primary mission is to advance legal rights, maximum opportunities, supportive services, accommodations and accessibility in a manner that fosters dignity and self determination.

Timeline: 1776-1900

1776: Founding Father Stephen Hopkins, who had cerebral palsy, is a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Hopkins served as President of the Scituate Town Council, Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, governor of the colony, and as a delegate to the First Continental Congress. He is quoted as having stated, “my hands may tremble; my heart does not.”[1]

1789: President John Adams signs the first military disability law, “the act for the relief of sick and disabled seamen.”[2]

1800s: In the Nineteenth Century, “village sign languages” develop in Martha’s Vineyard, MA; Henniker, NH; and Sandy River valley, ME.[3]

1805: The Father of American Psychiatry, Dr. Benjamin Rush, publishes “Medical Inquiries and Observations,” the first modern documentation of mental illnesses.[4]

1811: McLean Hospital is founded in Charlestown, MA. McLean was originally a division of Massachusetts General Hospital named the “Asylum for the Insane.” In 1826 the hospital was renamed “The McLean Asylum for the Insane,” in honor of John McLean, a Boston merchant who left a generous donation to the hospital.[5] The famous nursery rhyme “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is about Mary Sawyer, a McLean staff member who joined in 1832.[6] Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and James Taylor are among several famous people who have been treated at McLean.

1817: Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, the first permanent school for the deaf in America, opened in Hartford, CT on April 15.[7] Founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Dr. Mason Cogswell, and Laurent Clerc,[8] it is known today as the American School for the Deaf.

1829: Louis Braille, a French educator, invents the raised point alphabet used by the blind and visually impaired for reading and writing known as Braille.[9]

Portrait of Louis Braille

Portrait of Louis Braille

1829: Founded in Watertown, MA, Perkins is the first school for the blind in the United States.[10]

1829-Late 1800s:  “Freak shows” begin to spring up in the U.S. and reach their peak in the 1840s.[11]  The attractions displayed and sensationalized people with physical disabilities and often people of color to the public. Showmen such as the notable P.T. Barnum took advantage of spectators’ ignorance of medical explanations for the performers’ conditions and also exaggerated to further pique the audiences’ interest.[12] Despite perceived exploitation, many performers enjoyed their fame and profit and successfully fought for higher pay.[13] By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the popularity of these shows began to decline with changing societal attitudes and advances in medicine.[14]

1833: The Massachusetts mental hospital, the Worcester Insane Asylum opens and admits 164 patients.[15]

black and white photo of Dorothea Dix

Dorothea Dix

1840s: American activist and advocate for the mentally ill, Dorothea Dix, who grew up in Worcester, MA, conducted an investigation of the mental health system of Massachusetts. Her report, Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts, exposed widespread abuse of people with mental illness and the horrid conditions in which they lived.[16] Dix’s activism and efforts led to the establishment of the country’s first mental asylums, as they were then called, including the expansion of the Worcester Insane Asylum.[17]

1848: The infamous Fernald Development Center is established in South Boston as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded. Later moved to Waltham, it was the oldest institution that served people with developmental disabilities in the Western Hemisphere[18] until its closure in November 2014.

1844: The Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, forerunner of the American Psychiatric Association is founded.[19]

1849: The first “sheltered workshop” is established at Perkins School for the Blind.[20]

1855: The New York State Lunatic Asylum for Insane Convicts is founded to house convicted criminals with mental illness. Previously, the “criminally insane” were kept in hospitals or prisons.[21]

1860: The Braille system was introduced in the U.S.[22]

Late 1800s: “Ugly laws” sometimes known as “unsightly beggar ordinances” in many American cities and towns make it illegal for individuals with visible disabilities to merely appear in public. Violations could result in fines and even imprisonment.

1864: Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.[23] originally a grammar school for deaf and blind children with eight students enrolled was authorized by Congress and President Abraham Lincoln to grant college degrees.[24] Today Gallaudet admits both deaf and hearing students.

1861-1865: The American Civil War results in 30,000 amputations in the Union Army alone.[25]

Black and white photograph of male right leg above knee amputee

Private Charles Myer, Amputation of the Right Thigh, a photograph by U.S. Army medical photographer William Bell (1830–1910) showing a leg amputee.
Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum online database

1872: Alexander Graham Bell, scientist, inventor, and child of deaf parents[26] opened a speech school in Boston which admitted a large number of deaf students.[27] Bell held the view that deafness should be cured and that the deaf could be taught to speak and avoid the use of sign language.[28] Bell’s experimentation with hearing devices led to his U.S. patent of the telephone.[29]

1880: Helen Keller is born on June 27th. Keller became the first deaf and blind person to attend and graduate from college and to write a book.[30] She was also a founding member of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind.[31]

1880: The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), “the nation’s premier civil rights organization of, by and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States of America”[32] was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio. NAD represents the U.S. to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD).

1887: Helen Keller is introduced to her tutor, Anne Sullivan.[33]

Helen Keller as a child sits in a chair holding a doll. She is holding hands with her teacher, Anne Sullivan who is sitting beside her.

1888, Helen Keller at age 8 with teacher Anne Sullivan in Cape Cod, MA. Source:, New England Historic Genealogical Society-Boston)

1892: The American Psychological Association is founded.

We hope you enjoyed this journey through early U.S. history from a disability perspective.  Check back next week for Part Two: 1900-1960!

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[1]  “Disability History: Timeline”. 1700s. Retrieved 2 October 2015.

[2]  Id.

[3] Lane, Harlan; Pillard, Richard; French, Mary (2000). “Origins of the American Deaf-World” (PDF). Sign Language Studies (Gallaudet University Press) 1 (1): 17–44. doi:10.1353/sls.2000.0003. Retrieved October 1, 2015.

[4] “Disability History: Timeline”. 1800s. Retrieved 2 October 2015. 

[5] Mclean Hospital. “History & Progress.” Retrieved 2 October 2015.

[6] Mclean Hospital. “Historical Fun Facts.” Retrieved 2 October 2015.

[7] “Disability History Timeline.” Disability Social History project. Retrieved October 1, 2015.

[8] American School for the Deaf. Retrieved October 1, 2015.

[9] “Disability History Timeline.” Disability Social History project. Retrieved October 1, 2015.

[10] “History.” Perkins. Retrieved Oct 1 2015.

[11] “Strange and Bizarre: The y of Freak Shows”. Retrieved 2 October 2015.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] “About the Department of Mental Health. Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Retrieved Oct 1 2015.

[16] Dix, Dorothea L (1843), Memorial to the Legislature of Massachusetts 1843, p. 2, retrieved Oct 1 2015.

[17] Warder, Graham.  Keene State College. “Miss Dorothea Dix.” Disability History Museum. Retrieved Oct 1 2015.

[18] Daly, Marie E.  “History of the Walter E. Fernald Development Center.” City of Waltham.

[19] “Disability History: Timeline”. 1800s. Retrieved 2 October 2015.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] “Disability History Timeline.” Disability Social History Project. Retrieved October 1, 2015.

[23] Staff (2013). “Gallaudet University”. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved 1 October 2015.

[24] Gallaudet University. Retrieved 1 October 2015.

[25] “Disability History Timeline.” Disability Social History project. Retrieved 1 October 2015.

[26] Bruce, Robert V. (1990). Bell: Alexander Bell and the Conquest of Solitude. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 419. ISBN 0-8014-9691-8.

[27]“Disability History Timeline.”  Disability Social History project. Retrieved 1 October 2015.

[28] Miller, Don; Branson, Jan (2002). Damned For Their Difference: The Cultural Construction Of Deaf People as Disabled: A Sociological History. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. pp. 30–31, 152–153. ISBN 978-1-56368-121-9.

[29] Black, Harry (1997). Canadian Scientists and Inventors: Biographies of People who made a Difference. Markham, Ontario: Pembroke. p. 19. ISBN 1-55138-081-1.

[30] “Helen Keller FAQ”Perkins School for the Blind. Retrieved 1 October 2015.

[31] Id.

[32] National Association of the Deaf. Retrieved 1 October 2015.

[33] “Disability History: Timeline”. 1800s. Retrieved 2 October 2015.

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