Physical Disabilities: History of Institutionalization in the United States

Astounding Disclosures! Three Years In A Mad House

An 1851 account of personal experience within a 'mad house,' an early form of institutionalization (Disability History Museum)

While the forced institutionalization and sterilization of people with mental and intellectual disabilities has been well documented throughout history and explored at length by scholars, the same cannot be said for people with physical disabilities. People with vision and hearing impairments, as well as those with physical disabilities were institutionalized for the same reasons as those with mental disabilities: to protect individuals with disabilities, as well as the society at-large. In the United States, institutionalization developed in the early nineteenth-century as an offshoot of the scientific Enlightenment movement and the religious Second Great Awakening. Within these frameworks, institutions for people with disabilities worked as both centers of scientific experimentation and religious benevolence. By attempting to ‘cure’ those with disabilities, institutions believed they were enacting God’s will.

These trends developed throughout the United States, including within the state of Texas. However, personal experiences from people within these institutions are difficult to find, and images before the 1900s are rare. This makes it difficult to discuss personal experiences and narratives from institutions before pushback began in the twentieth-century. Nonetheless, some examples of personal accounts do exist. The pamphlet on the right contains a personal account from Isaac Hunt, who spent three years in a ‘mad-house’ in the 1840s. The account is a scathing review of the Maine Insane Hospital and its treatment of its patients. Hunt is able to describe many of these patients and on one page describes a hearing impaired man:

“Visitor, do you see that tall intelligent looking old man who stands there leaning upon two crutches? yes; well, he has been a successful merchant, and is now worth $30,000, but he has spun out his three score years and ten, and is perfectly deaf, and the only way that you can communicate with him is by signs or writing -- yet he is perfectly gentlemanly in his deportment.”

'Institutionalization Is Not Necessary': The Care, Cure, And Education Of The Crippled Child

A 1922 photograph of a Christmas party at a 'Crippled Children's School.' The photo advocates that institutionalization is not necessary. (Disability History Museum)

By the early twentieth-century, pushback towards the institutionalization of people with physical disabilities began to emerge. One of the greatest advocates for the integration of people with physical disabilities into society was the former U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a 1929 speech entitled, ‘An Address On Rehabilitation Of The Mentally And Physically Handicapped,’ he stated the following:

"Next we come to the problems of the cripples. A generation ago the crippled had no chance. Today, through the fine strides of modern medical science, the great majority of crippled children are enabled, even though the process may take years, to get about and, in many cases, find complete or practically complete cures. In other words, that large part of humanity which used to be pushed to one side or discarded is now salvaged and enabled to play its own part in the life of the community.” -FDR, 1929