Note: The AEJMC Media & Disability Interest Group is creating the Media & Disability Bibliography Project over the course of the next year. The following article only deals with historical perspectives and disability, not the gamut of mass media issues.
Media History and Disability
Clio, Winter 1999, Volume 31, Number 2

By Beth Haller
Towson University

Few people probably know that one of the signers of Declaration of Independence had cerebral palsy, or that the deaf community has had a vibrant press for more than 100 years.

Media history scholars have become much more aware of gender and ethnicity in their work; however, only a little research has been done on the place of people with disabilities in press history.

But what research is currently available could easily be integrated into many mass communication courses, especially media history or media criticism classes. Materials on media history and disability may be few, but they add crucial new elements that could make current courses a more diverse experience for students.

The following is a list of ideas and resources on disability and media history. It is drawn from the growing interdisciplinary field of disability studies, which views the disability experience in a social, political, and historical context. Much of disability studies is grounded in social constructionism, in which disability is seen as a phenomenon created by society, which historically has had architectural, occupational, educational, communication, and attitudinal barriers to prevent people with disabilities from being totally integrated in society (See Liachowitz, 1988). Within this perspective, the physical difference of the person with a disability is acknowledged, and even celebrated as an ethnicity might be by some, but the focus is away from the disabled individual as the problem and on society’s structures instead.

This bibliographic listing should give media history instructors numerous resources if they would like to add information about disability history and mass media to their courses.

Disability History

In 1998 the history of disability achieved more widespread recognition due to producer Laurie Block’s National Public Radio series called "Beyond Afflication: The Disability History Project." Her four-part radio series looked at the development of the "poster child" in American culture, employment issues and government policy on disability historically, the development of the disability rights movement, and an historical understanding of conception and childbirth as it relates to newborns with disabilities. The series ran in May1998, and she created an in-depth web site linked to the NPR site, which functions as an on-line museum archive.

Block said this summer that the next step in the development of the project may be to turn the huge web site into a CD-ROM, which could be put in libraries nationwide. Block is a documentary filmmaker who specializes in historical subjects. Her feature documentary, "FIT: Episodes in the History of the Body," might also be of interest to media historians.

The following list gives a sample of many of the other disability history resources available.


"Beyond Afflication: The Disability History Project." (1998, May).

Biklen, D. & Bailey, L. (eds.) (1981). Rudely Stamp'd, Imaginal disability and prejudice. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America.

Bogdan, R., Biklen, D., Shapiro, A. and Spelkoman, D. (1982). The disabled: Media's monster. Social Policy, 13, 32-35.

Bogdan, R. & Biklen, D. (1977). Handicapism. Social Policy, 7, 14-19.

Bogdan, R. & Taylor, S.J.. (1989). The social construction of humanness. Social Problems, 36(2), 135-148.

Borchert, M. H. (1996, August). The Time was Ripe: The Great Society Era and Development of Closed Captioned Television. Paper presented to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual meeting. Anaheim, Calif.

Bowe, F. (1978). Handicapping America. NY: Harper and Row.

Clogston, J. S. (1992). Fifty years of disability coverage in the New York Times. Paper presented to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Montreal, Que.

Devlieger, P. Baz, T. & Drazen, C. (1997, August). Images of Mental Retardation in American Film: Narratives, Semiotics, and Historical Perspectives. Paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual meeting, Chicago.

Ferguson, P.M., Ferguson, D.L., & Taylor, S.J. (1992). Interpreting Disability: A Qualitative Reader. New York: Teachers College Press.

Fine, M. & Asch, A. (eds.) (1988). Women with Disabilities, Essays in Psychology, Culture, and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Gallagher, H. G. (1990). By Trust Betrayed. NY: Henry Holt.

Gartner, A. & Joe, T. (Eds.), Images of the Disabled, Disabling Images. New York: Praeger.

Hand, W.D. (1980). Deformity, disease, and physical ailment as divine retribution. Magical medicine (pp. 57-67). Berkeley, Ca.: University of California Press.

Hanks, J.R. & Hanks, L.M. (1948). The physically handicapped in certain non-occidental societies. Journal of Social Issues, 4, 11-20.

Higgins, P.C. (1992). Making disability: Exploring the social transformation of human variation. Springfield: Ill.: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Kern, S. (1975). Anatomy and desire: A cultural history of the human body. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

Lenihan, J. (1976). Disabled Americans: A History. Washington, D.C.: President's Committee on Employment of the Handicapped.

Levy, C.W. (1988). A People’s History of the Independent Living Movement. Lawrence, KS: Research and Training Center on Independent Living.

Linton, S. (1998). Claiming Disability. Knowledge and Identity. NY: NYU Press.

Longmore, P.K. (1985). A note on language and social identity of disabled people. American Behavioral Scientist, 28:3, 419-423.

Nelson, J. (1996). The invisible cultural group: Images of disability. Images that injure, Pictorial stereotypes in the media. P. Lester (ed.) Westport, Conn.: Praeger

Nelson, J. (ed.) (1994). The Disabled, the Media, and the Information Age. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood.

Norden, M. (1995). The Cinema of Isolation, A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Pelka, F. (1997). The ABC-CLIO Companion to the Disability Rights Movement. ABC-CLIO Inc.

Phillips, M. J. (1990). Damaged goods: The oral narratives of the experience of disability in American culture. Social Science & Medicine, 30:8, pp. 849-857.

Rao, A. & Haller, B. (1993). Historic images of disability: Indian and European comic art traditions. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Kansas City, Mo.

Rothman, D. (1971). The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. Boston: Little, Brown.

Sarason, S. & Doris, J. (1979). Educational handicap, public policy, and social history. New York: Free Press.

Scotch, R. K. (1984). From Good Will to Civil Rights. Transforming Federal Disability Policy. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.

Schuchman, J. (1988). Hollywood Speaks, Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Shapiro, J. (1993). No Pity, People with Disabilities forging a new civil rights movement. NY: Times Books.

Shaw, B. (ed.) (1994). The Ragged Edge, The Disability Experience from the Pages of the First Fifteen Years of the Disability Rag. Louisville, Ky.: Advocado Press.

Stone, D. A. (1984). The Disabled State. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Trent, J. W. (1994). Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wahl, O. F. (1995). Media Madness, Public Images of Mental Illness. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Wendell, S. (1996). The Rejected Body, Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York: Routledge.

West, J. (1991). The Americans With Disabilities Act. Boston: Milbank Memorial Fund.

The History of Charity and Disability Organizational History

Disability history in general has many links to media, especially charity and advertising history. For example, Laurie Block’s discussion of the development of the poster child in her radio series gives good understanding about the commodification of children with disabilities in charity advertising. Historically, many disability organizations also used "inspirational" adults with disabilities to promote their causes such as Franklin Roosevelt or Helen Keller; their lives and the use of their lives within media representations give added explanation on the place of disability in media history.

Organizations such as the March of Dimes, Easter Seals, United Cerebral Palsy Association, National Federation of the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind, National Association of the Deaf, Paralyzed Veterans of America, as well as many others, began in the early to mid-20th century and some have archives that could be a good resource for charity and advertising history. Some of these organizations’ fund-raising tactics have not been highly regarded by people with disabilities because of their history of patronizing and stigmatizing representations. However, some of the organizations, such as Easter Seals, have made a concerted effort to change their charity appeals to ones based on the equality and independence of people with disabilities rather than the "pity" approach of the past. These changes in themselves would make for fascinating media history analysis – how changes in society’s treatment of people with disabilities are reflected in shifting charity and organizational themes.

For example, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, known for Jerry Lewis’ Labor Day Telethon, continues to be despised by many people with disabilities because it continues to focus on people with disabilities as "broken" or imperfect children who need to be "fixed."

Many of the above resources on general disability history are also applicable to the topic of charity and disability in U.S. culture.


Albrecht, G. L. (1992). The Disability Business: Rehabilitation in America. Russell Sage.

American Foundation for the Blind, Helen Keller Archives, web site,

Broeck, J. (1959). Public Welfare and the Blind. University of California Press.

Cutlip, S. (1965). Fund Raising in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Deutch, A. (1941, April). The sick poor in Colonial times. American Historical Review, 46, pp. 560-579.

Easter Seals web site,

Gaylin, W. (1981). Doing Good: The Limits of Benevolence. NY: Pantheon.

Gallagher, H. G. (1984). FDR’s Splendid Deception. NY: Dodd, Mead, & Co.

Griffin, C. S. (1960). Their Brother's Keepers. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Hall, P. (ed.) The Documentary History of Philanthropy and Voluntarism. In press.

Haller, B. (1994). The misfit and muscular dystrophy. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 21(4), 142-149.

Herrmann, D. (1998). Helen Keller, A Life. NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Jirikowic, D. (1997, August). Franklin Delano Roosevelt and His Disability: The Chicago Tribune and the 1936 Election. Paper presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual meeting, Chicago.

Katz, M. B. (1986). In the Shadow of the Poorhouse. NY: Basic Books.

Keller, H. (1954). The Story of My Life. NJ: Garden City.

Koestler, F. (1976). The Unseen Minority: A Social History of Blindness in America. NY: David McKay Co.

Lash, J. P. (1980). Helen and Teacher, Delacorte Press.

Liachowitz, C. (1988). Disability as Social Construct. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

March of Dimes web site,

National Association of the Deaf web site,

National Federation of the Blind web site,

Obermann, C. E. (1965). A History of Vocational Rehabilitation In America. Minneapolis: T.S. Denison.

Paralyzed Veterans of America web site,

Pernick, M. (1985). A Calculus of Suffering. NY: Columbia University Press.

Rosenberg, C. E. (1987). The Care of Strangers. Basic Books, Inc., 1987.

Scott, R. A., (1969). The Making of Blind Men, Russell Sage Foundation.

Sills, D. (1957). The Volunteers. Boston:The Free Press.

Skocpol, T. (1992). Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, Bellknap Press.

United Cerebral Palsy Association web site,

Walking Alone and Marching Together (1990). Baltimore: National Federation for the Blind.

Williams, P. & Schoultz, B. (1982). We Can Speak For Ourselves: Self Advocacy by Mentally Handicapped People. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Wolfe, K. (1996, August). Helen Keller. An icon reconsidered. Mainstream, pp. 33-37.

The Deaf Press

Linguistically tied together by a common language, American Sign Language, the deaf community was drawn together educationally in residential schools beginning in 1817, when the first permanent school for deaf persons opened in Hartford, Conn. With those schools came the community’s practice of journalism.

As each state developed its own residential school for deaf children, it invariably made printing part of its curriculum because printing was a profession that needed no hearing. So the schools printed their own newspapers, many times with deaf teachers or students as the editors. The first of these school newspapers, known as Little Papers, began at the North Carolina school in 1849.

Many of the Little Papers have been preserved and are on microfilm at Galluadet University in Washington, D.C. Using the Little Papers in a media history course can illustrate for students the importance of publications in forging a cultural identity for many unique or oppressed communities in society. As Erving Goffman said about the relationship between stigmatized groups and the press: "Often those with a particular stigma sponsor a publication of some kind which gives voice to shared feelings, consolidating and stabilizing for the reader his sense of the realness of ‘his’ group and his attachment to it. Here the ideology of the members is formulated" (1963, p. 25). The Little Papers tackled many significant topics that threatened the deaf community, such as the movement to do away with sign language in the 1880s and 1890s.


Baynton, D. C. (1996). Forbidden Signs, American Culture and the Campaign Against Sign Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Haller, B. (1993, Summer). The Little Papers: Newspapers at Nineteenth-Century Schools for Deaf Persons, Journalism History, 19:2, pp. 43-50.

Lane, H. (1984). When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf. NY: Random House.

Little Papers, Microfilm archives, Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.

Padden, C. & Humphries, T. (1988). Deaf in America, Voices from a Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sacks, O. (1989). Seeing Voices. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schein, J. D. (1989). At Home Among Strangers, Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Van Cleve, J. & Crouch, B.A. (1989). A Place of Their Own, Creating the Deaf Community in America, Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Carnival Side Shows and the "Enfreakment" of People with Disabilities

People with disabilities have been used as entertainers in many societies for many centuries. Only a few freak shows still exist in United States, but before motion pictures began, they were one of the more popular forms of public entertainment.

Several scholars have looked at the phenomenon of freak shows in U.S. culture, arguing that the definition of people with physical difference as freaks was a socially constructed category, rather than being based on physical characteristics.

Using historic advertisements and promotions for circuses and side shows, instructors can introduce students to mass media as agents of social construction. This could lead to a discussion of how the legacy of negative mass media portrayals of disability continues today. For example, Rosmarie Garland Thomson argues that a "freak discourse" about people with disabilities remains in modern times.


Bogdan, R. (1988). Freak show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Circus World Museum, Archives, Baraboo, Wisc.

Desmond, A. (1954). Barnum Presents General Tom Thumb. NY: MacMillan Company.

Drimmer, F. (1983). Very Special People. NY: Amjon.

Fiedler, L. (1978). Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Friedman, J.B. (1981). The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Gerber, D. (1992). Volition and Valorization in the Analysis of the 'Careers' of People Exhibited in Freak Shows. Disability, Handicap & Society, 7.

Harvard Theatre Collection, The Houghton Library, Cambridge, Mass.

Herzberg Circus Collection and Museum, San Antonio, Texas.

Hevey, D. (1992). The Creatures Time Forgot: Photography and Disability Imagery. London: Routledge.

Historical Collections, Bridgeport Public Library, Bridgeport, Conn.

Larsen, R. & Haller, B. (1995, August). Public Reception and Disability: The Case of the Film "Freaks." Paper presented to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication annual meeting, Washington, D.C.

Mannix, D. P. (1990). Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others. San Fancisco: Re/Search Publications.

McCaddon Collection of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, Theatre Collection, Visual Materials Division, Princeton University Libraries, Princeton, NJ.

Thomson, R. G. (ed.) (1998). Freakery, Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. NY: NYU Press.

Truzzi, M. (1979) Circus and Side Shows, in American Popular Entertainment, M. Matlaw (ed.) Westport, Conn: Greenwood.

Twitchell, J. (1992). Carnival Culture: The Trashing of Taste in America. NY: Columbia University Press.

Note: Numerous other books and articles have been written on carnivals and circuses more generally, as well as on P.T. Barnum.