“The creation of Disability,” Brian Edward Donovan

Union Soldier Poses for Portrait, ca 1863, Ashland Iowa

Brian Edward Donovan’s 2015 dissertation, “The harder heroism of the hospital: Union veterans and the creation of disability,” takes a look at the creation of the governmental “medical model” of disability through the contextual view of political history, and highlights the importance of perspective in attempting to make future improvements upon it.


Over the course of the Gilded Age, hundreds of thousands of men displayed what veteran William Howell Reed would come to call “the harder heroism of the hospital” – stoicism in the face of wounds and disease which could afflict a veteran with lifelong disabilities. The unprecedented scale of the Civil War’s devastation fundamentally altered the relationship between state and citizen, with the government’s newfound claim on the military labor of its citizens tempered by a reciprocal obligation to provide relief for those disabled in its service. This obligation, in turn, created a widespread idea of “disability” that was neither a strictly social position, nor a permanent medical condition

Threw a beautiful deconstruction of the relevent historical context, Donovan makes a case for a modern “bureaucratic model” of disability. “Emphasizing the state’s role in the production of disability has several important implications […] Understanding disability as bureaucratically constructed can help activists more effectively apply pressure where it is likely to do the most good.” Read more on how historical politics and perspectives have actively played a role in the modern development of disability as a political subject.


Brian Edward Donovan.The harder heroism of the hospital: Union veterans and the creation of disability.” Iowa Research Online (2015): p. 1-283.