Incurable Defects: Medicine, Welfare, and Clashing Conceptions of Disability in Philadelphia, 1730-1840

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Schroeder, Nicole, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Edelson, S. Max, Arts & Sciences Graduate, University of Virginia

“Incurable Defects,” argues that disabled individuals played a central role in shaping the social, political, and economic institutions that emerged throughout the early American republic. Tracking government officials, trained medical professionals, and disabled individuals across the turn of the nineteenth century, I argue that debates about the definition of disability shaped Philadelphia’s medico-welfare institutions and its policies. The dissertation reveals that disabled individuals formed a distinct minority in early America, one whose members struggled to obtain the rights of citizenship. The project employs methods from critical disability studies and offers new analytical approaches for studying historical experiences of disability.

“Incurable Defects” examines how welfare reforms created foundational barriers to access that disconnected disabled individuals from historic services. Despite narrowing medico-welfare options in the early American republic, disabled individuals employed various adaptive strategies in order to retain independence and health care access. “Incurable Defects” tracks the ingenuity of disabled communities, investigating how disabled individuals built relationships, maintained care networks, and adapted to a rapidly evolving welfare state. The dissertation project considers the power struggle between citizens, medical professionals, and government officials to define, screen, and surveil disabled bodies. Tracing discriminatory welfare policies across the turn of the nineteenth century, “Incurable Defects” tracks the emergence of discriminatory policies that shape our modern medico-welfare system. These trends, evidenced in the early 1800s, still hold power and bar disabled individual from equitable health care.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Early American History, Disability Studies, Social History, 19th Century , History of Medicine, Philadelphia
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