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Disability History through Primary Sources

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Helen Keller
Whitman Studio, photographer. (ca. 1904) Helen Keller, no. 8. , ca. 1904. October 28. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,


The integration of the history of people with disabilities into the curriculum benefits all students.  Recognizing the many roles of people with disabilities across time can be especially powerful for students who struggle in their own lives.  Students engage when they connect with history that reflects THEIR experiences.  Furthermore, disability history is increasingly recognized as vital to a full understanding of U.S. history, including in the 2018 Massachusetts standards. See Teaching Strategies for using Disability History Timelines.  

Primary sources from the Library of Congress, the Disability History Museum, and other collections can provide entry points and deepen exploration into historical events. Primary sources add immediacy, such as the faces in a photograph, the emotional tone of a drawing or song, or the complex look of a handwritten document. Documents from multiple points of view can illuminate conflicting ideas and events. Varied media, including maps, oral histories, published reports, and graphs offer many options for connection and investigation.

Download ten teacher-developed Model Lessons on Disability History that directly address content in the 2018 Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework. 


Primary Sources on Disability History

Explore–including a brief overview of the topic–in this Disability History primary source set from Emerging America.

  • The wholly online Disability History Museum offers hundreds of primary sources, background essays, and other resources. The museum examines the people, lives, and institutions of disability from the founding of the nation to today. Looking across disabilities and ages, the site aims to help all users deepen understanding of variation and difference in national and community life.


Conducting Searches for Primary Sources on Disability History - Video Guides. 

  • Finding Primary Sources on Disability History Part 1 [What are you looking for?] Text Sets. (3:29 mins.). Link to Part 1 video. This first video explains what a text set is and gives examples. 
  • Finding Primary Sources on Disability History Part 2 - How to Search. (6:56). Link to Part 2 video. This second video offers guidance for navigating the vast Library of Congress website, with particular attention to finding primary sources related to Disability History.


Crossover Themes of Disability History

State history standards and textbooks across the U.S. commonly emphasize a similar structure of topics in history. Even in states that do not yet make Disability History explicit, the following themes offer places where teachers can integrate key moments and concepts of Disability History.

  • Founding of Schools and of Asylums – (1820-1860) Antebellum Reform Movements
  • Civil War Veterans – (1861-1900) Impacts of Civil War / Growth of Federal Government
  • WWI Veterans – (1917-1932) Progressive Era / Propaganda / Impacts of WWI
  • Social Security Disability – (1933-1977) Progressive Era / New Deal / Responsibilities of Private Sector vs Government
  • Disability Rights – (1962-1990) Cold War Era Social Protests
  • From Homes to Poor Farms (Pre-History – 1900) – People with Disabilities in Traditional Communities 


Selected Publications and Collections on Disability History


Other Selected Publications on Disability History

Readings to introduce key concepts of Disability History.

Field hospital with 6 beds, soldiers in casts, slings, and in beds.

Model Lessons on Disability History

Upcoming Workshops

The Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Program at the Collaborative for Educational Services is making accessible to all learners - includi…
In July of 2018, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a requirement that every student have the opportunity to complete civic engagement project between 8th and…