From 1933 to 1945, the U.S. was led by a president who had contracted polio and yet managed to steer the country through its worst economic crisis and build a modern state around the politics of security. However, as Audra Jennings reminds us in the rich and important book Out of the Horrors of War, Americans with disabilities were actually left out of the New Deal welfare state, which mostly protected male workers employed full time. While the 1935 Social Security Act extended benefits to the blind, Americans suffering from other disabilities had no entitlement to social support and remained dependent on their families. The only venue available to them to escape economic marginalization was a means-tested federal/state civilian rehabilitation program so limited that it reinforced cultural notions of fitness for work and employment. Jennings starts her fascinating story at the onset of U.S. participation in World War II, when the urgent need for manpower on the home front allowed disabled Americans to prove their productive capacity and claim the full employment from which economic security accrued. This was when Paul Strachan founded the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped (AFPH), which boasted eighty-five chapters, seventeen thousand members, and more than a million donors nationwide in 1947. Unlike the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), which advocated for Americans afflicted by a specific disability, the AFPH sought to unite all disabled Americans, with Strachan and other leaders arguing forcefully that Americans with disabilities were all victims of discrimination and economic exclusion sanctioned and reinforced by the state. Nonetheless, the AFPH replicated this pattern of exclusion by focusing only on the stigma of physical disability. Still, as Jennings demonstrates, the AFPH was the main organizational vehicle of a movement seeking to expand the sociological boundaries of the American welfare state. Out of the Horrors of War revolves around the short life and political activism of the AFPH, but it is also a work of social history. Jennings not only provides brief insights into the social life and activities of local AFPH chapters, she also listens to the voices of people with disabilities who had a keen understanding of disability as a social and cultural construction and resented the authority of counselors whose decisions on eligibility for rehabilitation consigned them too often to a “life of idleness and despair” (63). According to Jennings, AFPH members were civil rights activists for whom employment was a path to full-scale citizenship, a passport to social independence, self-worth, and “freedom from fear.” Their activism sustained the ambitious state-building agenda of the AFPH, which included the creation of a federal agency that would be in charge of the protection and defense of Americans with disabilities by encapsulating a number of programs ranging from scientific research, healthcare protection, and federal pensions to policies facilitating their employment in government, and legislation requiring private companies to hire people with disabilities. Importantly, the AFPH insisted that Americans with disabilities themselves should run these programs. What makes the AFPH particularly interesting is that it did not have a narrow or parochial view of its political struggle. It included women in its defense of the right to work and secured the support of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations unions (Strachan himself was a former AFL organizer), both of which had quarrels of their own with the existing rehabilitation program. Jennings offers an interesting account of the United Mine Workers of America’s efforts to gain the most out of this program. It tried to recruit African American members in significant numbers but failed to convince civil rights organizations that fighting for the citizenship of people with disabilities was timely given the African Americans’ own ongoing struggle (the fact that the AFPH condoned segregation in the South probably did not help either). Jennings thus demonstrates that the AFPH offered an elaborate and somewhat intersectional language of discrimination and rights. But her account in the end stresses the limits of the power of that language during the 1940s and 1950s in the face of forces resisting change in the meaning of disability. AFPH failed to convince other advocacy organizations—veterans’ associations particularly—that their constituencies’ experiences were mutual, and thus AFPH suffered from other groups’ lack of interest in, and sometimes downright opposition to, AFPH’s proposals. Ultimately, the AFPH agenda did not come to fruition. It won an early victory in 1945 with the adoption of National Employ the Physically Handicapped Week; its activism thereafter contributed to the encouragement of several important amendments to the Social Security Act—including disability insurance—in the 1950s. However, its focus on rights and discrimination cut against the shift to an increasingly professionalized and medicalized model of rehabilitation. The AFPH’s activism thus resulted in an antagonism between policy experts and civil society that reverberated throughout the American polity. While the Department of Labor (DOL) endorsed its proposals, the Federal Security Administration (FSA)—which was in charge of the main rehabilitation program created in 1920—resisted them and sided with the experts’ notion that Americans with disabilities were not victims of discrimination but individuals who first needed medical care. Congress supported the FSA and never gave the AFPH’s proposals a chance. Jennings’s discussion of this process is pointed, but it does leave open a number of questions. Was the victory of the FSA over the DOL a product of its greater power within the New Deal state, or rather a mere reflection of the persistence of collective attitudes toward those with disabilities? Was not the AFPH’s agenda stymied by the liberals’ well-known faith in expertise, which only intensified during and after World War II? These questions aside, Out of the Horrors of War offers a most important addition to both the history of disability and the history of the U.S. welfare state. Well written and well researched, it demonstrates that the 1940s and 1950s were not a lull in the history of disability activism followed by the better-known activism of the 1960s and 1970s. Rather, these decades witnessed people with disabilities proving their ability to reject and challenge norms imposed from above. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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