Loading Animation

Leanna Duncan


Changing Bodies and Minds: The Experiences of “Crippled Children,” 1890-1960

By: Leanna Duncan

Welcome to our Featured Student Series. This week, Leanna Duncan discusses the history of the experiences of "crippled children" during the late Victorian period. Leanna has made a transcript and image description of her video available, which you can find here.

Language shifts and medical specialization have rendered the phrase “crippled child” both offensive and vague. However, “crippled child” once evoked a gamut of meanings—it referred to a pitiable innocent; the subject of a philanthropic movement; a potentially curable body. It could refer to an infant who had survived polio, a ten-year-old with spinal tuberculosis, or an adolescent born without limbs. Although children with orthopedic disabilities had long evoked their share of pity and charity, they became common targets of organized philanthropy only in the early twentieth century. My dissertation project examines the experiences of “crippled children” in the United States from 1890-1960, arguing that increasing public and philanthropic attention throughout the twentieth century altered the ways in which these children experienced the intersection of gender, race, and disability.1

As constructed by American rehabilitationists, reformers, and media, crippled children were figures of both pity and optimism, as they suffered from physical disability (usually paralysis, bone and joint disorders, or congenital deformities) but could be cured with charitable investment and hard work. Although children with disabilities existed before the turn of the century and had evoked their share of pity and charity, they became common targets of organized philanthropy only in the early twentieth century, largely due to the interest of Rotary Clubs and the formation of the International Society for Crippled Children. In the late 1930s, as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis grew truly national not only in its interests but in its advertising and fundraising capabilities, polio survivors became the primary faces of crippled children, and the nation responded with marches, donations, media attention, and floods of correspondence to these children. Throughout these shifts, medical, institutional, and public opinion pressured children with physical disabilities to conform to expectations of what “normal” bodies could do or look like, through a combination of hard work, compliance with medical authority, and keeping a positive attitude. This pressure did not only come from abled authorities—figures such as Joe F. Sullivan and other adults who experienced disability in childhood played key roles in creating and supporting the crippled child movement. I seek to answer the question: how did the crippled child respond to these expectations, as well as to the level of attention they received from family, friends, and strangers, and how can we trace their responses? 

My project combines the insights of children’s and disability history and advances both through its attention to historical actors rarely examined, as well as broadening existing work on polio survivors of the mid-twentieth century. Histories of disability make it a point to center the experiences of historical actors with disabilities, but like many other areas, have tended to focus their inquiry on adult actors. Adults, however, are only a part of the picture. I argue that it is impossible to understand the history of disability without examining the role crippled children have played not only in definitions of disability and cure but also in complicating the boundaries of race, gender, and class roles. As scholars have noted, disability complicates racial and gender identities; children with disabilities presented a further complication to these dynamics.2 Examining children’s history offers a view of gender, race, and disability that is decidedly more complex than the harder-set rules of the adult world, as gendered play and training, integrated schools, and the promise of cure characterized the day-to-day lives of many crippled children. I read institutional and personal papers, periodicals, and material culture with a focus on works that reflect children’s ideas and experiences of the world around them. The work is theoretically informed by Tobin Siebers’ concept of complex embodiment, which focuses on the complex experiences of disability that are both bodily and social. I also extend previous studies of polio and its survivors, suggesting that an understanding of the broad “crippled child” category is necessary to understand the trajectory of this group.

My passion about this project stems from the conviction that understanding the role of children in disability history is vitally important—not only to historical inquiry but to our everyday lives. Language has changed—we no longer speak of crippled children as a group, but rather of children with a particular disability. So too have the disabilities that children are commonly associated with—polio and spinal tuberculosis have given way to spina bifida or leukemia. But philanthropic and medical organizations’ rhetoric, from Shriners’ Hospital commercials to the promotional materials of local charities, continue to trade upon ideas about children as both agents and emotionally appealing objects that earlier movements pioneered. My project seeks to contextualize this state of affairs and reveal how much continuity exists between the ways we talk about disability and children both past and present.


1. My use of the terms “crippled child” and “crippled children” is meant to situate this discussion within a particular moment in which the term had multiple connotations. On a basic level, it referred to a child with a physical disability, frequently orthopedic in nature. However, it was also a signifier for a complex image involving both tragedy and optimism about cure, and invoked a connection with charitable impulses. For the sake of fluidity I drop the quotation marks surrounding this phrase for the duration of the text, but it should be read as a quotation which represents a category that is ill-expressed by modern language. See Brad Byrom, “A Pupil and a Patient: Hospital Schools in Progressive America,” in The New Disability History: American Perspectives, ed. Paul K. Longmore et al. (New York: NYU Press, 2001).

2. See Paul Lawrie, “‘Salvaging the Negro’: Race, Rehabilitation, and the Body Politic in World War I America, 1917-1924,’” in Disability Histories, ed. Susan Burch and Michael A. Rembis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), 321–44; Anne Borsay and Pamela Dale, eds., Disabled Children: Contested Caring, 1850-1979 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012).

About the Author

Leanna DuncanLeanna Duncan is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign specializing in US disability and children’s history. She is currently working on her dissertation, "Changing Bodies and Minds: The Experiences of ‘Crippled Children,’ 1890-1960,” and has recently received travel grants from libraries at the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota to pursue research for the project. Her work uses words, images, memoirs, and descriptions of children with orthopedic disabilities to explore their lives within the context of the early Progressive and mid-century medicalized movements which targeted them for improvement. She received her Master of Arts and her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Tulsa. She blogs about the connections between research, teaching history, and everyday life at Lesson Spotted.