The Social Security Act and the Origins of Collective Identity among People with Disabilities

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 2:30 PM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
Jennifer L. Erkulwater, University of Richmond
This paper examines how mid-century disability activists navigated the gender politics of the New Deal welfare state in order to construct a collective identity for people with disabilities. The modern disability rights movement asserts that people with disabilities share a common identity and common interests that transcend cleavages of race, gender, and class. Scholars generally locate the origins of this disability identity in social movements of the 1960s. The formation of identity, however, cannot be understood in isolation from political institutions. This paper draws attention to the impact of citizens’ interactions with public policy and program administrators in giving rise to collective identity and in shaping the content of that identity. Specifically, it examines the work of blind activists affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) between 1940-1950. During this period, the Social Security Act laid the foundations of the modern American welfare state, a state that deemed people with disabilities “unemployable” and therefore “worthy” of public assistance. Blind activists, however, resisted efforts to imbue the identity of people with disabilities with notions of incapacity and to place them under the supervision of a largely female social work profession. Activists mobilized blind men and women to oppose the civic incorporation of the disabled on unequal terms and to demand generous public assistance programs that would facilitate efforts of the blind to attain formal employment. At a time when national policies emphasized and reinforced gendered divisions of labor and national service, the NFB asserted the primacy of blind identity over other markers of individual identity and the “rehabilitative” value of paid work. Yet, as this paper demonstrates, the NFB’s support for the rights of the blind led the organization to pursue political strategies that limited its ability to ally with other progressive organizations pursuing economic and racial justice.
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