UT professor’s book details history of disabilitiesWritten by Matt Liasse | | email@example.com
A week after Kim Nielsen signed the contract for her new book “A Disability History of the United States,” her teenage daughter became disabled.
“My daughter has a rare neurology disease and so is now a part-time wheelchair user,” said Nielsen, a University of Toledo professor. “It’s been a good learning experience for my family.”
The book, published by The Beacon Press, was released Oct. 2. The book offers insight on both U.S. history and Nielsen’s personal life.
“I’ve realized that disability is part of my life in ways that I had not even realized, but I think that’s the case for all of us,” Nielsen said. “The book means a lot to me.”
In the book, Nielsen, who holds a doctorate in history, explores the past of people with disabilities in America. She also digs into the changing definitions of said disabilities. It is the first book to cover the whole timespan from the European arrival to the present day, she said.
Nielsen said she wrote her book for both a general and a scholarly audience. She said she hopes it’s approachable for anyone interested in history.
“History is about telling stories and telling them well,” she said. “[It’s an] interesting topic with lots of rich stories and interesting people.”
At first, Nielsen was worried the book’s topic was “too much to bite off.”
“Probably all writers write in spurts,” Nielsen said. “You know there’s agonizing days where you work to write a paragraph and nothing will come at all.”
Nielsen said there was a lot of research required for the book and a lot of working with primary sources.
In the book, Nielsen wrote that disability is central to the history of the United States. She said that when we look at the history of disability, it forces us to examine our ideals of community and independence.
“People with disabilities have been ignored in U.S. history and yet they’ve been really integral to U.S. history,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen also uses storytelling methods in her book.
In one of the book’s stories, Nielsen wrote about a Civil War veteran who lost his arm before returning home to his fiancée, who left him because of it. Nielsen included a poem the veteran wrote about the situation in her book.
“It’s written with so much humor that he became somebody that I really would’ve liked to have met,” Nielsen said. “He told the story with real grace and humor.”
Not every story in the book has humor to it though. Nielsen said that a slave ship sailing to America from Africa was overridden with a disease that left a lot of passengers on the ship blind. When told this information, the captain gave orders to throw all the ill slaves overboard as “damaged cargo.”
“That story just haunted me for months and months,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen recently joined the University of Toledo as a professor in Disability Studies. Such departments are “new, but growing” on college campuses, said Jim Ferris, director of the School of Disability Studies.
The UT Disability Studies program was created as a partnership with The Ability Center of Greater Toledo (ACT), which sets it apart from other universities in the nation. ACT is a nonprofit organization that aims to assist people with disabilities, according to abilitycenter.org. Ferris also serves as ACT’s endowed chair in Disability Studies.
UT’s department has 90 students and will be hiring two more faculty members by the fall of 2014.
Ferris called Nielsen’s book “groundbreaking,” and “another step in creating a world-class program.”
Nielsen is teaching two classes this semester and more in the spring.
“I have marvelous students,” Nielsen said. “I’m enjoying them very much.”
Nielsen has written four other books, but said “A Disability History” was the book she learned the most from.
“It was the book that stretched me the most intellectually,” Nielsen said. “It’s nice at 46 to know that I can still learn new things and develop new skills and continue to better myself as a historian.”
Nielsen said it is impossible to say what her favorite book she has written is.
“Parents will never identify their favorite child,” Nielsen said. “I’m a little hesitant to do that.”
Nielsen said people have contacted her praising the book and telling her their personal stories of living with disabilities as well.
“That’s been really lovely, to see people connect themselves with the book and the stories that I’m telling,” Nielsen said. “All of us are part of this story.”
“A Disability History of the United States” is available for about $18 at barnes andnoble.com and amazon.com.