Thesis ID: CBB101048242

Disability Democracy: The Origins of Blind-Led Organizing in the United States, 1829-1935 (2023)


This dissertation considers the emergence, activities, and legacies of blind-led organizing in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century United States as a vehicle for deepening understanding of the long history of political and social movement building around disability. Rooted in analysis of archival, digital, legal, material-object, and published sources, it considers how blind-led organizing—some of the first political work around disability led by disabled people themselves—and its fruits were shaped at every stage by the historical contexts in which organizers operated. The dissertation draws on the frameworks and methodological resources of U.S. history and intersectional disability studies. In the 1830s, residential blind schools formed as a strand of U.S.-American nationalism and Christian reform during key years in the United States’ ascent as a major expansionist settler-empire on the North American continent. Though this was not the intent of the sighted founders of the schools, who feared that bonds formed between blind people might encourage their isolation, the schools became incubators of blind sociality, and, by extension, blind politics. A small blind elite emerged from the schools as the first generations of pupils graduated from them. Most members of the blind elite were white men, the cohort most served by the schools in this period. The blind elite fostered the development and innovation of technologies tailored to blind people’s access needs—especially tools for blind writing like point types (including braille) and typewriters—in a world designed and run by nonblind people. They engaged collective self-help and middle-class-cultivation strategies, which they disseminated through alumni groups, social clubs, and benevolent societies. Generally pervasive economic inequality, structural barriers to blind workers’ employment, and anti-blind prejudice collided to deepen the likelihood of blind people’s poverty—and thus the likelihood of discursive connections between blindness and poverty. Alongside sighted people, middle-class blind organizers created and maintained workshops which employed blind people who might have otherwise been excluded from participation in the labor market and paid them extremely low wages to conduct repetitive and monotonous work. This and other assistance to blind people poorer than themselves functioned as a strategy to decouple cultural associations between blindness and poverty during a period in which poverty was deeply stigmatized. By the late nineteenth century, these trends in blind sociality fused with developments in association building and Progressive politics. Through their associations, graduates of the schools brought the skills they had learned in the blind schools to newly blinded adults too old for institutional instruction by engaging mutual aid work and ongoing education programs. In step with wider trends in Progressive organizing, there were more opportunities for white blind women in association leadership and membership than ever before. Under a coalescing Jim Crow regime and a rising mainstream eugenics movement, these organizations tended to prioritize the needs and concerns of white people from all classes over nonwhite blind people, though there were exceptions, including white organizers working across the color line and at least one Black- and blind-led Progressive Era association, which operated out of Baltimore. Like many other Progressive Era organizers, blind organizers took advantage of new opportunities for direct democratic participation in state politics. They considered their political advocacy to be fundamentally compatible with their ongoing mutual aid activities. Over the course of several years and through complex political campaigns, blind-led associations coalesced around the common issue of the blind pension, or a small monetary grant from the state which the associations framed as key to covering the extra and unfair costs which blind workers faced in their quest for employment and a modicum of economic security. The pension campaigns were particularly successful in the North, Midwest, and West—regions with the strongest traditions of Progressive Era direct democratic work. While blind-led organizing faced new challenges during the conservative and professionalized climate of the 1920s, blind pension laws would enjoy an unexpected afterlife in the New Deal era. The pensions provided the model for a federalized “Aid to the Blind” program, which was elaborated in the Social Security Act of 1935. Due to the legacies of blind-led organizing, blind people were the only working-age adults specified in the Act, which represented one of the first policies of federal provisions for disabled civilians in the United States.

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Authors & Contributors
Baynton, Douglas C.
Byrom, Bradley Allen
Chess, Simone
Hogan, Andrew J.
Mounsey, Chris
Nielsen, Kim E.
Gender and History
History and Technology
Journal of Social History
Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Social History of Medicine
Taiwanese Journal for Studies of Science, Technology, and Medicine
University of Chicago Press
University of Iowa
Cambridge University Press
Franz Steiner Verlag
Johns Hopkins University Press
Manchester University Press
Disabilities; disability; accessibility
Political activists and activism
Public health
Medicine and society
Scopes, John Thomas
Swail, James
Time Periods
19th century
20th century, early
20th century
20th century, late
21st century
18th century
United States
Great Britain
Rome (Italy)

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