“Nor has any man who is crippled a right to be idle,” thundered social worker George Mangold at an industrial accident conference in 1922 (67). While he inaccurately characterized most cripples as idle, Mangold nevertheless captured the long-standing role of work and productivity in defining “disability.” In many cultures, disability has been characterized as the inability to do productive labor, a charge that has limited the citizenship and social standing of people with disabilities. Sailors on slave ships tossed disabled captives overboard; after the Civil War, impoverished Americans with visible impairments found themselves barred from begging in public and, in some cases, banned altogether from streets. But disability has also long been central to working life—a phenomenon that underscores the profound importance of incorporating class and economic perspectives more broadly into disability studies.
In many historical eras and regions, the threat and reality of disabling injuries have been a “normal” aspect of the everyday work experience. Until quite recently (and still today in more dangerous economic sectors), the notion that a mature worker could have an intact, unscarred body was fanciful. Indeed, the bodies of slaves, sailors, oil workers, coal miners, hotel maids, and other laborers have long borne witness to labor’s toll. Slaves’ scarred backs, sailors’ bowlegs, oil workers’ missing fingers, coal miners’ shortened breath, and maids’ back pains all testify to the near inescapability of disabling injuries. For many, such as an early Ford Motor Company worker who recalled his punch press crew losing “an average of sixteen fingers a month,” the possibility of acquiring a work-related impairment was simply “part of the job.”
Workplace dangers, however, have not always been distributed equally across communities. Racial and gender stereotypes have influenced employers’ visions of the ideal workforce and served to justify unsafe conditions. In the 1930s, for instance, the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation recruited migrant African American workers to drill a tunnel through deadly silica rock. Knowing nothing about the dangers and working without protection, laborers began dying within weeks from the lung disease silicosis. The company argued that “Negroes didn’t know how to care for themselves” and refused to compensate their families. Likewise, maquiladora (export-oriented) factories on the U.S.-Mexico border have preferentially hired women, believing them better suited to electronic assembly work. These relatively high-paid and “clean” indoor jobs, however, also expose women to hazardous chemical fumes.
Disability has often been equated with the inability to do productive work, but rarely has this assumption reflected the lived experiences of people with disabilities. The staff of the 1915 Survey of Cleveland Cripples, for example, was astonished to find many individuals who were self-supporting: “The lives of unknown cripples are much more normal than supposed” (qtd. in Nielsen 2012, 128). Indeed, a man who had lost his right arm owned a saloon, and another amputee became the city’s examiner of engineers.
In both the industrial and the postindustrial eras, disabled people developed strategies that have allowed them to enter—or remain—in the workforce. Deaf people discovered welcoming occupational niches: printing presses in the United States, and hair styling, sewing, and carpentry in Japan. Others turned to self-employment, such as an elderly Philadelphian who opened a newsstand in the 1920s after a laundry mangle mutilated her hand. Others have contributed to their household’s economy by performing uncompensated “care work” at home: tending to young, disabled, or elderly relatives.
Some employers, too, pioneered innovative approaches to include disabled workers in the labor force. Between the 1910s and 1940s, Henry Ford hired tens of thousands of elderly and disabled workers, including people with complete blindness, epilepsy, shell shock, and missing limbs, and paid them full wages. Unlike most employers, Ford viewed people with disabilities as a potential source of efficiency. He recognized their intense desire to work and analyzed his factories to determine the positions best suited to his workers’ diverse bodies. Wartime labor shortages have also led employers to willingly hire workers with disabilities; during World War II, hundreds of thousands of disabled Britons and Americans found full-time employment.
Working-class communities, moreover, rarely stigmatized what we might today classify as “disabilities”; rather, bodily variations have been understood as the result of poverty. American novelist Harry Crews, for instance, described his childhood fascination with the Sears catalog: “All the people in its pages were perfect. Nearly everybody I knew [in rural Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s] had something missing, a finger cut off, a toe split, an ear half-chewed away, an eye clouded with blindness from a glancing fence staple” (1995, 58). This is true in global perspective as well. In many Botswanan villages, for instance, disabilities among migrant miners, meatpackers, coal miners, and railroad workers were so common in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that diverse bodily configurations and varying levels of productivity became “normal.”
As industrialization intensified, however, employers became increasingly unwilling to hire workers with disabilities—a shift that had grave economic consequences for both disabled people and their families during the twentieth century. Enamored with the efficiency movement, employers demanded workers with intact, interchangeable bodies. Making matters worse, the workmen’s compensation laws passed in many countries between the 1880s and the 1910s reinforced employers’ views of people with disabilities as potential liabilities and led them to begin screening out workers with disabilities. At times, labor unions supported these exclusionary policies. By the 1930s, such practices had spread as far afield as Botswana, where mine owners’ strict medical examinations barred men with relatively minor impairments such as clubbed feet, nearsightedness, deafness, or epilepsy. Restricted to ill-paid work such as herding others’ cattle, few could fully support a family. In Great Britain, in turn, more than half of people with disabilities lived in poverty by the 1960s, versus a quarter of the able-bodied population. As of 2013, disabled people in the United States were five times more likely than able-bodied people to be unemployed and were disproportionally likely to be employed part-time.
Certain types of disabled people’s labors, moreover, have frequently not been recognized or compensated as proper work. Starting in the nineteenth century, inmates of idiot schools, mental hospitals, and other asylums contributed untold numbers of hours of cleaning, farming, cooking, sewing, and caring for other inmates. Defined as rehabilitative training that would aid reintegration into the mainstream community, such labor rarely led to release. Nor were inmates paid for their work, although their labors helped to defray asylums’ expenses. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, sheltered workshops such as Goodwill Industries began to offer employment to disabled people who could not easily find regular work; such work, however, did not offer a living wage. Workshops in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain have typically taught unmarketable skills such as mat making, doll repair, or clock assembly. Furthermore, in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, Congress exempted some sheltered workshops from paying the minimum wage. As of 2011, 426,000 workers with disabilities worked for wages as low as 41 cents per hour.
Lack of opportunities for paid employment has also limited or circumscribed disabled people’s access to citizenship and social standing, especially in countries without a robust social welfare system. Starting in 1882, immigrants to the United States had to prove that they would not become a public charge—a category in which immigration officials automatically placed people with disabilities, even if they had job offers and a history of self-support. Rehabilitators, moreover, often characterized people with disabilities as unproductive citizens, ignoring systemic prejudice on the labor market. Goodwill Industries’ founder described his work as salvaging “human waste” thrown on an “industrial scrap heap”; training would restore “good citizenship.” Moreover, means-tested benefit programs such as Supplemental Security Income offer access to Medicaid but typically limit recipients’ incomes to the poverty level. Effectively, recipients with significant health issues cannot work more than a few hours a week without jeopardizing their health care. Famously, the late disability historian and rights activist Paul Longmore publicly burned his first book in 1988 to protest these work disincentives (Longmore 2003); receiving even a few hundred dollars in royalties would have cost him his ventilator and in-home assistance.
Recognizing the importance of work to social standing, disability rights activists have long fought to gain access to the mainstream labor market. Deaf associations led a successful two-year campaign to overturn the U.S. Civil Service’s 1906 ban on deaf and mute employees, while in the 1930s, the League of the Physically Handicapped staged sit-ins in New York and Washington, DC, to gain entrance to New Deal job programs. Despite labor unions’ complex legacy regarding disability, radical unions in Argentina advocated and won minimum hiring quotas for disabled employees. And, in the 1940s and 1950s, American labor unions joined forces with—and funded—the broad-based American Federation of the Physically Handicapped, pressing the federal government to address disability as an issue of economic security.
Government initiatives to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream workforce have had mixed success. Veterans, and disabled veterans in particular, have played a central role in these initiatives due to the implicit privileging of those disabled by war over those with congenital disabilities. Weimar Germany’s pioneering Law of the Severely Disabled (1920), for instance, mandated that employers hire and retain disabled veterans, ensuring that even those with severe impairments had work during the Great Depression. Voluntary initiatives, however, such as Britain’s mid-twentieth-century quota system and the U.S. “National Employ the Handicapped Week,” had little effect. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, and the ADA Amendments Act of 2009, however, have enabled disabled workers to request reasonable accommodations for their work environments and to file discrimination claims when those requests are not met. Judicial hostility and the failure to address employers’ prejudice, however, have blunted the impact of these laws. Indeed, while other provisions of the ADA have greatly increased the public presence of disabled people, unemployment rates have barely budged. Likewise, while the UN’s Year of the Disabled in 1981 and International Decade of the Disabled (1983–1993) raised awareness and led many countries to improve public accessibility, disabled people continue to face extraordinarily high rates of unemployment as of the early twenty-first century, reaching as high as 90 percent in Argentina and Bulgaria.