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2/3 – Reflecting on the Origin of Disability

laurentanel's picture

While reading “A Disability History of the United States” by Kim E. Nielsen, I was struck by the idea of disability in the context of slavery. On page 45 Nielsen describes disability as an economic loss. Slaves were tagged “disabled” if they lost the ability to perform labor efficiently. This definition relies solely on economic opportunity. To further this, Nielsen explains that disabled slaves were even thrown to sea before reaching the Americas because the trade companies insured dead slaves but not those who were disabled and alive. This means that more money was made by killing the disabled than selling them for a lower price on the market. It is shocking to me that human beings were treated this way as purely resources for money-making. It also says a lot that the definition of “disability” began as describing someone’s economic potential. Along with many societal issues, this one of prejudice towards people with disabilities stems from the capitalist system we live in. It makes me wonder if diverging from capitalist ideology would help minimize ableism and discrimination. I also wonder how this definition of disability projects into society today in ways broader than unemployment.