Research Sources on Disability in History

Are you contemplating including a character with a disability in your next historical novel?  If you need to research how people with disabilities were treated in the past, here are some books and websites that can get you started and perhaps give you story ideas.  I’m listing works here on people with disabilities in general, and plan to offer more resources on specific types of disability in future articles.


Many print books have bibliographies which can lead you to further sources beyond this list.  I have included ISBN numbers for easier online purchasing or finding in a library catalog.

A Disability History of the United States, by Kim E. Nielsen.  Beacon Press, 2012.  9780807022023

The author repositions American history so that people with disabilities are at the center of the narrative, from Indigenous populations to the present.

Disability in Eighteenth-Century England: Imagining Physical Impairment, by David M. Turner.  Routledge, 2012.  9780415886444

“A series of case studies that examine the representation of impairment in a variety of cultural milieu”—p.14.  Religious and medical perspectives are presented and stereotypes are examined.

Disabled Veterans in History, David A. Gerber, editor.  University of Michigan Press, 2000.  0472110330

Essays on veterans’ disabilities in history, including Philoctetes in ancient Greece and the French disabled in the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, but the bulk of the chapters are on 20th century veterans.

Lame Captains and Left-Handed Admirals: Amputee Officers in Nelson’s Navy, by Teresa Michals.  University of Virginia Press, 2021.  9780813946733

Authors of naval tales set in the age of sail will find story ideas here.  The author follows a group of amputee British naval officers and looks at “how the loss of a limb affected their professional and personal lives”—p.2.

Oxford Handbook of Disability History, edited by Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen.  Oxford University Press, 2018.  9780190234959

A collection of essays, such as “Disability in the Premodern Arab World,” “Disability and Work During the Industrial Revolution in Britain,” and “Disability and Work in British West Africa.”

The Routledge History of Disability, edited by Roy Hanes, Ivan Brown and Nancy E. Hansen.  Routledge2018.  9780367659998

A collection of essays with an international emphasis, such as histories of disability in Hong Kong, Israel, and the Netherlands; and examinations of educational opportunities for people with disabilities in various countries.

The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, by Susan M. Schweik.  New York University Press, 2009.  9780814740576

In the 19th century, some American cities passed “ugly laws” laws forbidding “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed” people to be seen in public.  The book explores the history of the rise and demise of the laws.  I hadn’t heard of these laws before coming across this book; there appears to be quite a few descriptions of individual cases, which could spark story ideas


Disability History Resources: Home (U.K., Oxford University)

This is a guide on Oxford’s Bodleian Library website, but you don’t have to be an Oxford student to view some of the resources.  Explore the “resources by topic” tab and click on a subject like “dwarfism” or “sport” to be taken to related websites.

A History of Disability: from 1050 to the Present Day (U.K., Historic England)

Includes audio and sign language versions of the articles.  “Reveals how disabled people’s lives are integral to the heritage all around us.”

Disability History Timeline (U.K.)

A PDF offered by the UK’s National Health Service with an extensive timeline of disability history, starting with the ancient world.

The UK’s unwritten history of disability (U.K., Disability Horizons)

A brief overview of disability history.


A PDF timeline of Canadian disability history

The “Unfit” in Canada: A History of Disability Rights and Justice (Canada: Disability Justice Network of Ontario)

A timeline of Canadian disability history milestones

The Historical Treatment of People With Disabilities in Australia, by Melissa Ryan

This brief article is on LinkedIn but I was able to view it without having an account.  The author states that “Australia does not have a proud disability history” and provides a brief overview of the topic.

Domestic space and disability in nineteenth-century Melbourne, Australia, by Brendan Gleeson.

I could not get a working link of this article to embed in the title above.  Use your favorite browser and search on “domestic space disability Melbourne” to bring it up.  It’s a PDF of a scholarly article from Science Direct, in which the author consulted records of the Melbourne Ladies’ Benevolent Society in order to study people with disabilities’ lives in 19th century Melbourne.

Heroes Come with Empty Sleeves, by Matt Coletti (U.S. National Museum of American History)

About U.S. Civil War amputees in the 19th century.

From “Invalid Corps” to full active duty: America’s disabled soldiers return to war, by Kayla M. Pittman (U.S. National Museum of American History)

How the U.S. military found ways for injured veterans to continue serving, from the Civil War to present.

Disability History: Early and Shifting Attitudes of Treatment (U.S. National Park Service)

Brief history of how people with disabilities were treated starting in the 1700s.

Disability History Museum (U.S.)

A virtual museum that “help[s] deepen [people’s] understanding of human variation and difference.” This link lands you on the page where you can browse primary source documents.

Disability Social History Project (U.S.)

This timeline starts with BCE dates and goes to 1995.  You may find other resources on this site by exploring the options in the black bar.

EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America (U.S., Smithsonian)

A sampling of images and documents on disability history from the Smithsonian’s collections.

“There Are No Invalids in the USSR!”: A Missing Soviet Chapter in the New Disability History” by Sarah D. Phillips

Article from Disability Studies Quarterly about the treatment of disability in Russia in the Soviet era.


About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.


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