Writing about people with Disabilities in Colonial America

This article stems from research done for the historical novel The Pride of the King by Amanda Hughes published on Amazon.com Copyright July 2011.

Very little has been written about people with disabilities living in Colonial America. Medical care was practically non-existent, disease was rampant and living conditions sub-standard. It is safe to assume that disabilities occurred at a rate higher in the 18th Century than today, yet little is known about the reaction of residents and solutions for people with disabilities in Early America.

Many Colonial Americans shunned people who suffered from physical and mental difficulties, but it is suggested that the less severe the affliction, the more accepted they were in the New World. Accidents, genetic diseases and illnesses rendered many people disabled to different degree. The majority made adaptations, living full lives within the community.

Some of our most renowned citizens of Colonial America overcame or adapted to disabilities. Thomas Jefferson, Washington Irving and Cotton Mather had speech difficulties. The renowned artist John Brewster Jr. was deaf, Colonel William Prescott was visually impaired and Stephen Hopkins, who signed the Declaration of Independence, had Cerebral Palsy. He is quoted as saying when he signed the famous document, “My hand trembles, my heart does not.”

Those who suffered most severely from debilitating disabilities were frequently treated with segregation and inequality. Families often kept family members with disabilities at home, hidden behind closed doors, particularly those who suffered from mental illness. At the time many believed that people who were mentally ill were possessed by demons, and they were shunned and feared.

Residents of Early America who did not have families to help them went homeless. Leaders addressed this problem initially by paying individuals in the community to house these individuals in a foster care setting. If they were able to live on their own, the counties provided them with funds to get shelter, feed and clothe themselves. Unfortunately many recipients of county assistance had to wear a red or blue letter “P” on their chest which stood for poverty, alerting all to their misfortune.

In the 1700’s larger cities in Colonial America began erecting almshouses. They were funded by the counties or charitable organizations, such as the Quakers in Philadelphia. The Colony of New York had almshouses in Albany and New York City as early as 1650. Overseers from the county almshouse roamed the streets looking for homeless people, while others voluntarily sought shelter there. The almshouses were frequently workhouses for criminals as well, so people who had disabilities were housed with the poor, the homeless and with criminals. Everyone worked in the almshouses, sewing, weaving and farming in return for food and shelter.

The almshouse solution, taking different names, would endure in this country until the 1960’s.


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