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This is Backstory, I'm Ed Harris. For three days, students have shut down the campus, boycott in classes, and burned effigies. This was the scene at Gallaudet University in 1988. The nation's only university for the death and heart of hearing had operated for more than a century without a president who was one of their own. So students demanded one. It changed not just the way hearing people saw deaf people. It changed the way deaf people feel about ourselves. Americans with disabilities have long fought for their own voice, while others have tried to speak for them. 100 years ago, disability reformers tried to suppress sign language. Today on Backstory, physical disability in America, from restrictive 19th century immigration laws to the long fight for freedom. There are many examples of slaves who could utilize disability, either genuine, feigned or exaggerated, to achieve their own ends. Coming up on Backstory, a history of Americans with disabilities. Major funding for Backstory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is Backstory, with the American History Guys. Welcome to the show. I'm Brian Ballot, and I'm here with Ed Ayers. Hello, Brian. And Peter Ones with us. Hey, Brian. We're going to start today's show with the story of two sisters, Millian Christine McCoy. They were born into slavery at an North Carolina plantation in 1851. And, you know, right away, their owner recognized that they were an interesting sort of spectacle. This is Jennifer Berkeley, a historian at Washington State University. And the twins from a very early age began to be exhibited in different ways throughout the southern states. Millian Christine were born, conjoined at the hip.
And, like hundreds of other 19th-century Americans with disabilities, the twins made their living by exhibiting their bodies and side shows, or more crudely, freak shows. These would have been folks with unusual bodies, perhaps amputees, folks missing limbs, or folks who were considered to be giants, or folks who were considered to be midgets. So, just a whole diverse array of people. Berkeley says that in the case of the McCoy sisters, well, the twins extraordinary bodies got them on the stage. It was their performance as the two-headed nightingale that astounded audiences. They were having dance routines that were choreographed while they sang. They were both multilingual and as part of their performance. So, one would carry on a conversation, say, French, and the other one carry on a conversation in German. The McCoy's act paid off. By the time they retired from the stage in their 30s, the twins had made enough money to live comfortably and buy a farm for their parents. They even found it a school for black children in their home state.
But the McCoy's use of their disability as a source of financial independence is hardly unique. I think the agency that maybe disabled people got in those days was the fact that they were fiscally independent and that they had a group of equals. This is Matt Fraser. You might recognize him from the TV show American Horror Story, Freak Show. He's an actor and sideshow performer who integrates a congenital deformation in his arms into his show. Fraser has done a lot of research into his profession and says that like the McCoy sisters, many 19th century sideshow performers leveraged their disabilities for a better life. And I think that was more the agency because the alternative of being, you know, I'm going to use phrases of yesterday here, you know, the school cripple or whatever you get, lumbered as identity wise, you know, could often be improved by going on the road and being a fabulous freak and an exotic that people desired and wanted to know more about. But both Barclay and Fraser stress that this agency is easy to romanticize.
In the 19th century, sideshow performers with disabilities still regularly faced exploitation at the hands of showmen like PT Barnum. In Million Christine McCoy's case, they were forced to undergo invasive medical examinations to prove they were real freaks. And even the very presence of cocking onlookers complicated any financial success. Barclay says in the 1830s and 40s, sideshow audiences weren't exactly looking to celebrate diversity. Anabel in America in these kinds of productions first emerged was a time of tremendous change and upheaval, industrialization, things like abolition. I think in many ways were anxieties that spectacles like freak shows helped to give folks a place where they could sort of test their own normalcy. In other words, the audiences used for former disabilities to feel normal. Matt Fraser says these dual strands of agency and exploitation are ever present inside show history. Where is the line between being a self-respecting, fiscally independent, treated as an equal performer that celebrates their beautiful difference to the hideous notion of people coming to gawk at someone's deformity because they can't do anything else because society won't let them work.
Which is the other side of the coin. But this tension isn't just confined to side shows, it runs throughout the history of disability in America. Able-bodied Americans have often projected their fears, anxieties, and stereotypes under their fellow citizens with disabilities, many of whom in turn have worked to find their own means of social and civic mobility. Today on the show, a history of physical disability in America will explore how enslaved people used fear of disability to their advantage and find out why Alexander Graham Bell fought against the use of sign language within the deaf community. We'll also hear from voices of protest in the 20th century fight for disability civil rights. But first, let's take a look at how views of disability have shaped who has been granted access to the US in the first place.
Since the founding, politicians had used a term Able-bodied to define civic participation, but the 1880s lawmakers begin to focus on those coming into the country. In 1882, federal immigration law barred anyone who was a convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge from entering the country. That list included children and adults with any number of physical disabilities or perceived defects. The list would include varicose veins, flat feet, hearing impairment, vision impairments, short stature, poor physique. This is University of Iowa, historian Douglas Bainton. He says it's hard to tell exactly how many immigrants with disabilities were kept out of the US. For one thing, discrimination didn't begin at Ellis Island because the shipping companies did their own inspections. Because if they brought an immigrant over who was rejected, they would have to pay a fine for that person and they have to bring them back at no charge.
The ticket sellers, ticket agents who were spread all over Europe also did their own inspections. These were non-medical people, but they would refuse to sell tickets to people who they thought would be excluded because they would be penalized by the shipping companies. And what this suggests to me is that people with really debilitating disabilities might not have made it this far. They wouldn't have gotten through the initial screens and also if they had a mobility impairment, they wouldn't be able to get on the ship in the first place. Can you give me an example of what this process actually looked like in practice? These officials deciding on the spur of the moment that somebody was defective. There was an Armenian Turk in 1905, by the name of Donabet Mosekian, who was diagnosed as suffering from feminism. That was the term that was used on his medical certificate. And it referred to a lack of male sexual organs or underdeveloped organs as a result of what we now know to be a hormonal deficiency.
How would they know that? It must have been from a facial trait? Yes. I know from reading your article that basically people are walking by and when they see somebody who seems defective, they write an L on their back. Is that right? Right. There was a whole code for different kinds of defects. X for mental defect, L for lame. So the first inspection was really just a snapshot diagnosis as immigrants streamed past the inspectors and they would pull some people out chalk on their back and then give them a closer inspection. So with Mosekian, his hearing was extraordinarily brief. It was as if the board that was examining him was very uncomfortable. In this case, one of them said I move to exclude as likely to become a public charge. Second panel member said, I second to motion. Third said he is excluded. And that was the entire hearing. But he appealed to Washington, which all immigrants had the right to do.
And he wrote in his appeal that he had always supported himself. He was a photographer, a weaver and dire of rugs, and a cook had worked at all of these. And he wrote in his letter, I am not ill and have no contagious disease. This is not my fault. It has come from God and my mother. What harm can I do by being deprived of male organs? When he left, he was fleeing the violent oppression of Armenians in Turkey and had been made to renounce the citizenship when he left. So he explained this in his letter and he said better that you should kill me now than send me back. And the Armenian genocide took place just a few years after he was sent back. So much of this focused around not being able to find work. What kind of evidence would they have of that? Was that actually true, you think? That's the thing. There is a widespread assumption that a disability means being incapable of working. So in the case of Musekian, there really seems to be no reason to assume he wouldn't be able to find work.
But there was an immigration service memo that explained why they should not be admitted, which was that their abnormality becomes known to their fellow workers, who mocked them and taunt them, which impedes the work at hand. And so employers know this and are unlikely to hire them. So it's for their own good in many ways. Right. Well, basically, we're saying that we have to discriminate against them now because they're likely to encounter discrimination later. So you say that these restrictions grew over time. Does that mean that they grew increasingly accepted? I mean, was there a sort of turn against people with disabilities at the beginning of the 20th century? Or it was just a sort of a more a bureaucratic momentum that built. I think there are a couple of things going on. One of the eugenics movement definitely grew. And it was not just in the negative sense of preventing defectives from giving birth, but encouraging people considered to be superior to have more children. So sterilization was one way of preventing the proliferation of defective people.
The other main track that eugenicists took was to prevent defective people from coming into the country. They would argue that all of our sterilizing and institutionalizing of people is not going to do any good if we're just being swamped with defective people from the outside. So this just seems to be running contrary to what we think of as the currents of of sensibility and progress. And we think of abolitionism and feminism and general sensitivity to the suffering of animals and everything seems to be flourishing in the 19th century. But why would people with disabilities seem to be kind of exceptions to that general trend? Well, I think there are a lot of different factors. One of them is the standardization of society in the industrial age. The term normal comes into common use near the end of the 19th century. And it becomes a very powerful concept. People used to talk about human nature. And then it shifted around the turn of the 20th century to a concern with what is normal. Counting people, measuring people, seeing what the bell curve shows us about what are normal characteristics.
And it's tied in with a lot of changes, the growth of cities, industrialization, where not only do you need standardized parts and replaceable parts, but standardized and replaceable human beings, workers. People with disabilities don't fit as a cog in that larger machine. So how long were these laws on the books? I mean, you say they sort of peak in the early 20th century, then what happened? The immigration laws do not take out the language having to do with specific disabilities or defects that are excludable until the 1990 act. And still today, we exclude people who are likely to become a public charge, and that still remains of keeping people out with disabilities. So it still goes on. Douglas Bainton is a historian at the University of Iowa, an author of the forthcoming book, Defectives in the Land, Disability and Immigration in the Age of Eugenics.
Earlier, we heard from historian Jennifer Barkley at Washington State University, an actor and performer, Matt Fraser. We just heard about the laws in the 19th century that targeted disability among immigrants, but attitudes at that time affected plenty of Americans as well. Our story starts with Alexander Graham Bell, who we all know as a hero for his invention of the telephone in 1876, but Bell was also one of the most influential figures in the field of deaf education. He had a deep personal connection to the issue, both his mother and his wife were deaf, but the signing deaf community has viewed Bell as a villain. This is Brian Greenwald, a historian at Gallaudet University. I spoke to him through a sign language interpreter.
Greenwald says that in the late 19th century, Bell used his fame to try to eradicate sign language, which he viewed as primitive. Bell was one of the more prominent activists who promoted a different form of communication for the deaf, known as Oralism. Oralism is a pedagogical approach to teaching deaf children, which relies on teaching them speech training, liberating and eliminating the use of sign language. The idea being that deaf children would be recast as hearing speaking people. And why did Bell think that Oralism was more advanced, or why did he think that American sign language was more primitive? This is an era when sign became viewed as atavistic, backwards thinking, that it was a bumbling use of gesture to convey information in a way that wasn't a good fit for human nature as it was seen. In terms of evolutionary thinking of the day, people regarded sign and those who use sign as being somewhat closer to the use of gesture among say monkeys.
And the idea being that if you could not speak, you could not think and we're not human. So for Bell, working to eliminate sign language, I think, was really a kind of reform, as he saw it, a progressive reform. Greenwald told me that in the late 19th century, there were several dozen boarding schools for the deaf, where students were taught sign language. The schools and signing had created the beginnings of deaf culture. My belief is that Bell saw Oralism as a social and educational pressure that could be applied to deaf people so that they would leave that cultural community, because he thought that deaf people should not be marrying other deaf people. Why?
Bell was a eugenicist. That theory doesn't hold true. But the overarching goal for Bell was to reduce the number of deaf people in existence. Now the way to reduce those numbers of deaf people he thought, and his argument was through Oralism as a tool for a simulation. Was there anybody who pushed back against Bell in order to defend that culture? So even within the schools for the deaf, where sign language was forbidden or not used, those deaf students would spontaneously sign on the slide, and if the teacher had their back turned to write on the board at any moment, the students were communicating with each other using signs and doing so in the dormitories as well. Other acts of resistance, and really a very important one to remember, is that when those deaf children graduated from those schools, they continued to gather in deaf communities, within churches, within deaf clubs, within different organizations.
The number of deaf-related organizations on local, state, national levels are astounding, but Oralists were like a tidal wave in that era that just swept across the United States. Part of the problem was that the Oralists had never asked deaf adults about their own experiences, and so deaf children of that day and still today continued to get the short end of the educational experience. Brian Greenwald is a historian at Gallaudet University. Despite efforts to suppress signing, the language thrived throughout the 20th century, largely through those methods of resistance Greenwald mentioned. You know, guys, I noticed from those interviews with Douglas Bainton and Brian Greenwald, how in the 19th century reformers categorized and labeled and institutionalized people with disabilities, and obviously these reformers had good intentions, but it seems to me that something was lost from earlier times.
So Peter, what was gained and lost from the 18th century to the 19th century world in which people were institutionalized? Well, in a way, your question says at all, there aren't institutions and everything that's done in terms of social welfare has to be done literally at home or in your hometown or village. That sounds good. And it is good in the sense that you have a place, whatever you're born with, however you're born, whatever marks you as different is accepted. One of the reasons that can be accepted is that 18th century society, even in British America, is hierarchical. There is a culture of caring because without that care, people can't survive and the survival and care. It's called a responsibility, right?
Yeah, exactly. You know, that phrase about it takes a village to do this that and the other thing, and that begins with taking care of small children and anybody who needs help. Peter, did it matter that so many people in the, let's say late 18th century worked in the home? Yeah, Brian, I think that's a great point. We think of work as an activity that we're slotted into once we join the community. It commutes off to work. But let's just say you can't go out into the fields anymore. Well, there's something for you to do. There is plenty to do, whether it's childcare, whether it's food preparation, whether it's simply watching the world go by and reporting on that to your neighbors. You're a part of an organism of a community. So, wasn't that better? Yeah, that's better, Ed, but what's not better is the sense that your destiny is fixed with those marks at birth, whatever it is that distinguishes you. And the whole range of things that we now call disabilities, mental, physical, whether they happen as a result of an accident and you're disabled, all of those things lead to sort of a fixed and permanent outcome. That idea that you cannot pursue happiness and we understand happiness to be the aspiration to be a full and complete human being because you happen to be in this category.
Then it's different being disabled, then to be disabled is not to participate. Peter, were the categories of what today we call disabilities? Were they the same back then or are these inventions of the 19th century or the 20th century? Well, I think they are largely inventions of the 19th and 20th century. And part of that is based on the idea that you can do something for somebody with what we call disability, you can enable that person. Whereas I think in the 18th century, you are what you seem to be. I mean, if you can't do something, you can't do it. There's no probing question because there's no hope that the diagnosis is going to lead to any kind of outcome. That's what strikes me as different from my 20th century purchase. The presumption shifts to being whole, enabled, fully entitled citizens with a certain barrage, you might even think about those curb cuts that we have today.
You can only put cuts in the sidewalk, they can function like anybody else. And that seems very different than your period. And I think the neologism, ableism, suggesting prejudice against those people with disabilities, that is that they can't overcome the effects of those disabilities. And an ableist is simply going to consign those people to the fate of not being able to participate. Well, that would be to return to the 18th century. We're going to leap forward now to the late 20th century and a watershed event for the deaf community. We picked Dr. Elizabeth Ann Zinzer as the 7th president of Gallaudet. It was March 1988. Officials at Gallaudet University had just announced the appointment of a new president. Students at Gallaudet, the nation's only college for the deaf and hard of hearing, were outraged.
They began a campaign called deaf president now. There's never been anything like it at Gallaudet. For three days, students have shut down the campus, boycott in classes, and burned effigies. Zinzer didn't even know sign language. Truth be told, I was shocked. I thought I had the job. This is I King Jordan. In 1988, he was a dean at Gallaudet and one of the candidates for the presidency. Jordan lost his hearing in a motorcycle accident when he was 21. We spoke to him through a sign language interpreter. He says that students had been telling the board that it was time for Gallaudet founded 124 years before to have a deaf leader. But the board didn't take that message to heart apparently. There's a famous quote where the chairman of the board says, you know, it's not time for a deaf president.
The deaf people are not ready to be president yet. Well, do you want to tell us what was going on? I can tell you what went on from my perspective. It was at home and it was Sunday, March 6th. And I was home in the evening and somebody called my home and my wife answered the phone. And whoever called, I can't remember who it was and I said, turn on the news. You'll want to see what's going on. So she turned down the news and there was life coverage of what was going on at Gallaudet. And the students were really on an uproar and with them that I learned that they had a pointed doctor sensor. So I went into campus on Monday. I drove in and I couldn't drive on the campus. So I parked nearby and I couldn't walk on the campus. All of the students closed down the campus and they wouldn't let me on.
And they had closed the gates. That actually hot wire to couple of the school buses and drove the school buses in front of the gates and deflate at the tires. So it wasn't going to be very easy to get on the campus. So how did you react when you saw these protests? Were you with the students? Did you have did your administrator sensibilities kick in and say, oh my goodness. This is bad for publicity. I think both one and two are the way I reacted. I thought what the students did was understandable and correct. And at the same time, I was a dean. So I had the tension between those two different positions. One thing, if you've done your homework that you probably know is on Wednesday at the National Press Club, I stood up in front of the group of reporters and cameras.
And then I was asked, do you support what the Board of Trustees is saying here? And two, my regret. I said, yes I do. It's a board decision while I was doing that. There was a crew there from a TV program called Death Mosaic from the Aradats TV department. And the cameraman and the producer who were there were both deaf. And when I looked back at the producer who was a young woman who was a good friend of mine and someone who I liked and who I knew like me, she was looking at me and she was shaking her head and she was crying. She didn't find anything. She just smiled. No, no. And I said, okay, I'm dean. And I'm also deaf. And I'm going to be deaf for the rest of my life.
And I'm going to be dean for as long as I keep the provost happy. So I really have to change my position somehow. And the next day I went to campus. So yesterday, because I had been a candidate and wanted to be both reasonable and fair, I gave a statement recognizing the legal authority of the Board to name the president of Gallaudet University. In fact, my personal reaction to the Board's decision was and is anger. And so, you know, I fully support the action that the students have taken, the notion that the next president should be a deaf person. And I stand with you. I must now publicly affirm my support for the point of view held by the Gallaudet community.
And while I was saying that, I knew that I was shooting myself in the foot. I thought, ain't no way I will ever become president now. I mean, not now, not later. They're, they're going to have to appoint somebody because Zetra can't weather this storm. I know that. But given the way I stood up and did this, there are never going to appoint me. Right. That was Thursday on Friday, since we're resigned. And the short of it is that I got a telephone call on Sunday telling me that the Board had appointed me president. We went to the Mayflower Hotel where the Board had been staying. And oh, the Mayflower, when they announced a press conference, word got out. And so all the students came there. I mean hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students came.
I remember a short written statement that I had. I want to be very careful of what I said. And I must give the highest praise to the students of Gallaudet for showing us exactly. Even now, I won't concede an idea with such force that it becomes a reality. And I pronounced, really, like real estate, an idea becomes reality. And my wife gave me an elbow. King, what impact do you think this event had on the deaf community? Oh, wow. It's almost impossible to measure. I think about halfway. Well, no, not halfway to the week. Actually, it was probably toward the end of the week. I realized that it was not really a protest anymore that it was really a revolution that the deaf community would never be the same. That the view of an understanding of and perception of deaf people would never be the same. It began as a student protest.
But it really became a revolution about the rights and abilities of people who were deaf and a cry for the recognition of people who can hear of those abilities and rights. And there was a buzz phrase that I had when I was president. And that was deaf people can do everything except here. And I believe that with all my heart. King, I can't tell you what a pleasure it's been to talk to you today. Thank you so much for joining us on backstory. Thank you. It's really been a pleasure for me. I came Jordan as president emeritus of Gallaudet University. In the 19th century, epilepsy was considered a serious disability. And it was thought to be especially prevalent among enslaved people. But we dig a little bit deeper. The historical record shows a more complicated story.
I have read accounts of slaves who admitted having feigned seizures in a variety of ways, choking, frothing at the mouth, convulsing. This is historian Dia Boster. She says that white slave owners were terrified of epilepsy, which helps explain why slaves found ways to use those fears to their own advantage. Slavery, of course, was itself a violent disabling system with back breaking work, beatings, and medical neglect. But the hidden history, Bostron covers, shows that even able-bodied slaves exploited white anxieties about disability. She tells the story of a child whose seizures saved her from a terrible fate. In 1843, a 15-year-old female slave in Richmond, Virginia, named Virginia, was found guilty for the crime of arson, which for slaves was a capital offense. And she was sentenced to hang. But her master, a man named Archibald Govan, appealed to the governor for clemency, and he was able to convince the governor to have her sentence commuted. So instead of being executed, Virginia was supposed to be sold.
And on the day that Govan picked her up at the city jail to transport her to a slave trader, Bacon Tates jail, she experienced what Govan described as an epileptic fit. There's nothing to indicate she had a history of it, but she had such fits or episodes regularly for almost two months before both the slave trader and a physician he had hired threw up their hands and said, we can't sell her, she has no value, you have to take her home. So a slave, a young girl who had been found guilty in a Richmond court of a capital crime was sentenced to die was saved. Her life was saved. She wasn't sold. She was returned to her family. How would they know that she had epilepsy? Well, that's a very good question. It was not a very well understood disease category at the time. And they never exactly explained in any of the correspondence I read what the fits actually looks like. They just use the word epileptic. Yeah, we can't know what really happened, but we can't help but be struck by this seemed very advantageous to her for those fits to struck her when they did.
So were there other times that we know of that people were able to use disability or faint disability to their advantage? Oh, absolutely in a variety of instances. I mean, when you think about the day-to-day negotiations of slavery, you know, slaves who could use agency not so much for outright rebellion, but to negotiate the terms of their labor. And how they interacted with their masters, there are examples of slaves who sabotage their own body at market to prevent a sale to an undesired master. My favorite example, though, and it's a very unique one of a slave who utilized a masquerade of disability to her advantage was Ellen Kraft, who in 1848 escaped with her husband William from making Georgia to Philadelphia. And that's a long way to escape as enslaved people. It is. And what's really remarkable about the craft story is that they traveled on public transportation the entire way. Wow. Yeah.
Yeah. So I'm guessing disability played a role in this. Can you explain? Absolutely. So the Kraft device to plan where Ellen, who was fairly light-skinned, presumably she was the daughter of her master, her white master. She disguised herself as a white slave-holding man and gave herself the persona Mr. Johnson and her husband William, who was slightly older than she disguised himself as Mr. Johnson's servant. And the cover story was that they were going to Philadelphia to seek medical treatment. And in order to cover- For Mr. Johnson. For Mr. Johnson, yes. In order to cover up Ellen's femininity, her voice, the fact that she could not read or write, because as a slave she had never been trained how to read and write, they utilized a variety of disabling characteristics. So they put shaded green glasses over her eyes to feign a problem with her eyesight. They wrapped her head in poltices when an acquaintance who knew her as a slave tried to strike up a conversation with her, she feigned deafness so that she wouldn't have to respond. And most importantly, they bound her right arm in a sling so that she would have an excuse not to register her name for hotels and such along the way, because she didn't know how.
So it's interesting that they used disability to make themselves invisible and in some ways inaudible on their escape from the South. And they could exploit the reactions to disabling injuries, whether it was revulsion, whether it was repression, horror, disgust, pity, sympathy. It's fascinating how enslaved people such as Virginia or the crafts are able to use disability as a way to actually buy a little bit of space in a society that otherwise left them so little. And certainly that tells us an awful lot about expectations of disability and ideas about disability and development society more generally. The more visible or apparent a disability is, the greater the impulse to render that individual invisible. So I think that actually helps lend complexity to this issue to understand exactly how disability can work on so many levels in American society and in American history. The Aboster is a historian at Columbus State Community College, an author of African American slavery and disability, bodies, property, and power in the Annabelle himself, 1816.
Earlier in the show, we spoke with actor Matt Fraser. He's best known for his part in American Horror Story, where he played Paul, the illustrated Seal Boy. The role was a fitting one. 15 years ago, Fraser constructed an entire act based on a historic side show performer named Stanislaus Barrett, whose stage name was Sealo, the Seal Boy. We asked Fraser how he started in the profession and to tell us about its history. It all started when I was an actor and I went for an audition at the Bill, which is our long-standing police drama.
And I had a great audition with the guy, but then I didn't get the call. And I just knew it was my disability. And we called them and they said, oh, we called them on the hop and they were like, he needs to drive. Sorry, there's a problem. The character needs to drive. And I have full drive in license at the front of my resumes. They just picked the wrong excuse. And I thought, okay, I get it. People don't want me. Right, where can I go where not only will I be wanted, but no one can take the job from me. And at the time I was interested in looking at free shows as the cultural heritage of disabled performers today. For myself, I come out in usually to some sort of sexy, pretend sexy music with a jacket with pretend long arms. I then let them drop from the sleeves. Then I throw away the jacket. And I'm like, yes, it's me. And then I explain my physical condition. This condition called Focomelia is Seal-like limbs. So I talk about being the seal boy and being scared when Canadians come to the show because they're famous for clubbing seals.
And you know, real bad taste to you more like that. I end up by doing my clever rock drumming. And say, you know, do a roll and a parodiddle and do a bit of explanation. And then get the hell out of dodge. When I explain my medical condition in terms of what my bones are like, you know, I can see that the audience are genuinely interested. And do I detect a sort of relief to understand? I think I do. I don't want to put words into their expressions. But I'm really convinced there's a sort of appreciation of understanding. You know, you're not allowed to ask the disabled person. So how are your bones work then? You're as funny little arms you've got. How do they work? It's the fear of the unknown, I think, that there's a lot of difficulty around the language or disability in a cosmological correctness. And of course, self-respective disabled people meant that it's just not cool to go around going, so why can't you walk? You know, it's just not cool to do that. But people still want to know. And in the sides you get to tell them and they get to find out.
This is part of America's entertainment heritage. And so I very much feel that in doing the seal of the seal boys act, you get a guilt-free slice of history to see what it was like for a disabled performer. He was very proud of the fact that throughout his 35-year career, he looked after all five members of his family, he kept them clothed, housed and fed, and it was something he was tremendously proud of. And back in those days, you know, he wouldn't have been able to do much. So it was a way of validating it because in not to get too political, but in our capitalist society, you are what you do. I have to say, I think this is actually a growth movement at the moment, not a subsiding one, which it was when I came into the business about 15 years ago. And I think what's wonderful is that disability is just considered normal now within it. It's simultaneously a normalizing of the congenital difference, with a glamorizing and an exoticizing of that difference for performance purposes.
Matt Fraser is an actor and performer. We'll link to videos of his performance at In July of 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark law prohibits any employer from discriminating on the basis of disability. At the signing ceremony, President Bush hailed the legislation as an unambiguous civil rights achievement. Three weeks ago, we celebrated our nation's Independence Day. And today, we're here to rejoice in and celebrate another Independence Day, one that is long overdue. Long overdue, because the ADA was the result of a decade's long civil rights battle.
We're going to end today with a look back at a key moment in that struggle. In 1973, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act. It mostly applied to veterans, but it included a clause, Section 504, that prohibited any federally funded institution from discriminating against anyone based on disability. But there was a hitch. In order for Section 504 to be enforced, regulations had to be drafted. And they needed a signature from the head of Health Education and Welfare. This is Emily Smith-Badix, Associate Director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability. She says President Nixon's Health Education and Welfare Secretary never signed the 504 regulations. When Jimmy Carter took office, his secretary, a man named Joseph Califano, didn't sign either. Without those regulations, people with disabilities continued to face rampant discrimination and unemployment. By 1977, they weren't going to take it any longer.
Protests in ten cities across the U.S. were held at Health Education and Welfare offices to demand the signing of 504 regulations on April 5, 1977. In San Francisco, disability rights activists occupied a federal building for nearly a month. Although protesters didn't know it when they showed up in the morning, leaders of the movement planned to stay until they got that signature. Emily Smith-Badix collected oral histories from those involved in that protest. It all started this morning, here at the Old Federal Building on 50th, open. Sunda, you said to me, there's a demonstration at the federal building tomorrow. It's going to be outside from blah to blah time. We're inviting deaf people to come, so we need an interpreter. Can you interpret? So we were just going around in a big circle with signs and chanting different slogans and singing songs, and it was hot. And the third hour into it, I was thinking, I need to go home.
And that was when the organizers said, tell the deaf people we're going inside. It's like, what? We're going into the building. We're going to take over the building. Immediately after that demonstration this morning, our handicap started invading the building. We were let into the building. Nobody charged into the building. I'm welcomed. But we just didn't leave. I was surrounded by 200 people or more. I had my cane in hand, and I was saying 504, 504. And then it started it, 504, 504. There was a chant to sign 504, sign 504, and I remember the sea of deaf people signing that. And then I said, we won't move. We won't move. We've just gotten more to these people. I am not knocked into the third thing. And we stay that night, and we continue to stay. But we had no idea how long we were going to be there.
And if we starved in there, that's what was going to happen. If we got sick in there, we'd get sick in there. Whatever was going to happen, we were just going to be in there until this thing got resolved. And the protesters stayed in the building for 26 days. I remember the first night trying to decide what to do when they came to arrest us, because we were sure that they were going to come to arrest us. And we were surprised that they hadn't taken us out already. I think they've seen so many disabled people acting up, I suppose, as a term. I mean, what could they do? They were afraid that if they picked someone up, they might hurt them. They were just completely lost and confused. You know, the image of disabled people up until that time had been that we were all little pathetic children with individual tragedies. And, well, none of that was true.
We were sleeping wherever there was free space. So we had the large conference room. We had the hallway and there was somewhere around the elevator. And I slept under one of the large desks. I think probably everybody was in pain. A lot of us had physical disabilities. You know, and sleeping on the floor is just, you know, first of all, you've got to get down there and then you've got to get up. So a lot of blind people came and helped us get on the floor and get up in the morning. There were certainly, you know, romances that bloomed in the building. And I actually had created a tent out of a big, chanille bed spread that I had. So it was one of the few fairly private spaces. And people would come to me and say, can I use your tent? Sure, yeah, just being a friend, just being a friend. It was pretty amazing that we had three meals a day.
They couldn't stop food coming in. They couldn't starve them. That would look even worse. The Black Panther Party was there every day bringing us really good food. And then the people with the guns at the doors said, you can't come in. And they said, either you let us in or we're going to come back with our guys with our guns. And they let them in. The media was our main weapon. The Senate and San Francisco's HEW headquarters now is in its third day. At one point, the building trying to figure out how to get these people out of their federal building said, well, let's turn off the phones. If they can't reach the press, their power will be weakened. There were huge windows in the federal building. And there were people signing the press releases.
On the outside, and then interpreters would interpret what was being said on each end. So much so that within a day, you know, the building said, oh, give them the phones back. It's not making a difference anyways. And 125 disabled and handicapped are pledging they'll continue to sit in through tomorrow night, if not longer. But the problem on this, the fourth day, is still the same as it was on Tuesday, trying to get the attention of Washington. So after the protesters had been in the building for a couple of weeks, they started to get antsy that Washington D.C. was not adequately aware of what was happening. We had an election to choose who went to Washington D.C. We looked at the amount of money we had and the kind of support that we would need. So, you know, we had personal assistance and silence interpreters. And we wanted a diversified group of people that was racially diverse, that was disability diverse. In D.C. conditions were very similar to what they had been back in San Francisco.
They stayed in a church basement. They were again sleeping on the floor. But what infuriated the protesters is that California head of health education and welfare and Jimmy Carter would not meet with them. I think the first night we went and had a vigil outside of California's house and he left by the back door. And we went to Carter's church and left by the back door. So this was part of our tactic, was to say this is not an open door administration. And in the meantime, the group of handicapped people are sticking to their guns here in San Francisco. Today starts the food week of their sit-in at the old... So, the protests continued in this way with a group in San Francisco still in the federal building and a group in D.C. And on the 24th day of the occupation, word reached them that the 504 regulations had finally, finally been signed. And I remember when we heard, there was just this really joyous explosion we'd want.
We just, I mean, I think the overwhelming feeling that everybody had was just pride. Pride and power. And the whole group started singing, we shall overcome. And because there were so many deaf people involved and interpreters there, a lot of people had learned the sign for this particular song. And the whole room was signing, we shall overcome. And it was just this beautiful, beautiful moment. When Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, it bore the imprint of the 504 protests. The ADA itself echoed and expanded the 504 regulations, extending the guarantee of civil rights to the private sector. But it was the history of civil protests that was most on display when the first president was spoke at the law signing ceremony.
It's been the work of a true coalition of people who have shared both a dream and a passionate determination to make that dream come true. Emily Smith-Badix is the Associate Director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University. She collected these oral histories as part of a project celebrating the 25th anniversary of the ADA. It's called Patient No More, People with Disabilities Securing Civil Rights. You can find a link to the exhibit on our website. We heard from protestors Kitty Cone, Barry Ryan, Bonnie Regina, Joe Quinn, Judy Human, Dennis Phillips, and Swami Sudadanda. We had help from the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. That's going to do it for us today.
But you can join us online to continue the discussion. Tell us what you think of this week's show and help shape our upcoming shows like the history of American born religions. You'll find us at or shoot us an email at Backstory at We're also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at Backstory Radio. Whatever you do, don't be a stranger. Backstory is produced by Andrew Parsons, Richard McCarthy, Nina Ernest, Kelly Jones, and Emily Gatton. Jamal Milner is an engineer, Julianna Darity as our Digital Editor, and Melissa Gismondi helps with research. Special thanks this week to interpreters Adam Bartley and Eileen Sean from the Gallaudet Interpreting Service. Thanks also to Catton Cudlic and everyone at the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability as San Francisco State University. Additional thanks to Brenda Bruckerman and Susan Birch. Backstory is produced at Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel, History made every day. Brian Ballot is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Oneth is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA and Senior Research Fellow at Monticello. At heirs is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Backstory is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.
Body Politics: Disability in America
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The impact of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act is visible in parking lots, bathrooms, and public buildings across the country. But for centuries before the ramps and signs were erected, disabled people had to find their own ways to navigate American society.This week on BackStory, we're exploring the history of disability in America, from the "ugly laws" that barred the disabled from public spaces to the grassroots activism that set the stage for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Guys will consider how the inventor of the telephone tried to stamp out American sign language, and how enslaved people found ways to exploit white fears of physical disability. How have people with disabilities shaped 21st century America? And how have American attitudes towards disability changed?
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Chicago: “BackStory; Body Politics: Disability in America,” 2015-00-00, BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2024,
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APA: BackStory; Body Politics: Disability in America. Boston, MA: BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from