As this school year draws to a close—and I prepare for both the AP U.S. history exam reading in Louisville, Kentucky, and another AP summer institute here in Dallas—I find myself grateful for the newfound freedom of my first-ever handicapped van, and all the possibilities it represents. (For years now, I've been making do with manual and, then, electric lifts on the back of my car—all of which served their time but were no longer getting the job done as I moved into an actual wheelchair.)
From day one, I've taught students from crutches, a scooter with crutches, a bigger scooter, and now, a wheelchair, and all of these assistive devices have elicited questions from students, teachers, administrators, and parents. For whatever reason, though, I've never considered using my mobility issues as a topic for teaching in my AP U.S. history or AP language classroom, even as my students and I have collectively covered texts related to a panoply of issues related to exclusion and injustice. In 2019–20, as I hit the button once again on my new-to-me kneel-down van with in-floor ramp, though, I've decided to include books, cartoons, news texts, and essays related to the issue of disability as part of my emerging “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” content arc for a new prep I'm taking on, a combined AP language/AP seminar offering.
As I pull together the things I'll be assigning my students next year, then, I thought I'd share what's on my own reading list for the summer in the hopes that you'll join me on this exploration of what it means to be disabled—from mobility issues like mine, which are clearly visible to the eye, to the experience of our veterans suffering from PTSD. While the first book on this list may seem like an old chestnut, by pairing it with news taken from today's headlines—routinely peppered with litigation and legislation related to extending rights of the disabled or reducing the costs to small business for ADA compliance—I believe you'll find plenty of food for thought for essays, classroom discussion, and general edification.
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
First published in 1905, Helen Keller's autobiography remains the gold standard of disability stories. More than just a story of her extreme disabilities and the way she overcame them with the help of teacher Anne Sullivan, her book is inspiring in ways that push many us who struggle with questions like “Why, oh, why, do they put the soap dispensers so high in disabled bathrooms” to “Why is that five-inch threshold really necessary?” past our pain to see the bigger picture: “The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even touched.” Enough said.
A Disability History of the United States (REVisioning American History) by Kim E. Nielsen
In this groundbreaking text, Kim E. Nielsen draws extensively upon primary sources to retell stories familiar to so many of us who teach history—but flips the table to focus on the disability issues that drive so many things covered in a pro forma fashion in the textbooks, from the decision-making process at Ellis Island to involuntary sterilization to the killing of blind and otherwise disabled slaves to disabled miner strikes. Compelling reading, meticulously researched.
No Pity: People With Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement by Joseph P. Shapiro
A great text to pair with Nielsen's long look at disability in America, Joseph P. Shapiro's text covers the events that lead to the promulgation of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) and examines, in detail, the lives of disabled Americans before and after passage of the ADA. More important perhaps, Shapiro argues that we live in a disabling society, and the treatment of disabled people is something of a canary in a coal mine for all of us.
Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeves and the Case Against Disability Rights by Mary Johnson
I'm a big believer in presenting students with a balanced view, and Mary Johnson clearly spells out the beliefs and legal principles that animate both proponents and opponents of the ADA. She does, however, make a strong case that, by taking steps to integrate disabled people into all aspects of education, government, and architecture, we all benefit from inclusion.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
Yes, Tim O'Brien's book is a novel — but, to the daughter of a Vietnam vet, his fictional treatment of the PTSD experienced by so many of our veterans provokes a real understanding of what causes the trauma and why we collectively need to help all those who served in combat receive the disability services they need and so richly deserve.
These texts, the disability cartoons of recently deceased disabled cartoonist John Callahan, excerpts from TV shows like Breaking Bad, which features a character with cerebral palsy—all can work together to better inform our students about the life of disabled people in America. And, perhaps, help them gain some empathy as they read and discuss.