Independent Living—With Help: Home Care for People with Disabilities, 1954–69

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Chicago Ballroom VI (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Bess Williamson, University of Delaware
This paper explores issues of independence, interdependence, and everyday life for people with disabilities who lived at home in an era before the emergence of a formal disability rights movement. I will describe a program initiated in 1954 at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital – L.A. County’s rehabilitation facility and the largest polio hospital in the United States– that provided technical and social services to former patients in their move to home life. For hundreds of people, nearly all of whom were significantly paralyzed and used iron lungs due to the effects of polio, Home Care provided technological maintenance, social support, and so-called “housekeeping,” or non-medical services, in their homes. Funded by the March of Dimes, the program predated attendant funding that was included in Medi-Cal in the late 1960s and in federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in 1974. In focusing on the everyday logistics of home life, I argue, this program signaled a new attention to disability as a component of family and community life, not just a medical problem to be addressed inside of a hospital.

Oral history and archival documents of the Home Care program provide a view into the everyday lives of people with physical disabilities in this era. While the press and many medical authorities lauded people with polio and war veterans who “overcame” physical trials, these messages often glossed over the logistical realities of daily life in a world with few accommodations and deeply-felt social stigmas. The touted ideal of “independent living” was, in fact, the product of significant effort on the part of people with disabilities, their families and their caregivers. Placing Home Care within the broader history of disability rights, I will consider how the relationships and environments of domestic life challenged and altered conceptions of “independent living” for people with disabilities.