Laurel Daen is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University. She works with the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values and specializes in disability, sickness, medicine, and health in early America. She is currently writing a book about disability and civil rights, and has been published in the Journal of Social History, Journal of the Early Republic, Early American Literature, History Compass, and Rethinking Modern Prostheses in Anglo-American Commodity Cultures, 1820-1939. This semester she is teaching “Epidemics in America,” a course which looks at the history of health and disease in American history and its influence on the longlasting culture of the country.
What inspired you to teach this class?
As a professor, I’m very committed to teaching courses that encourage students to study American history and culture as a means of thinking more deeply about their own lives and the nation today. This past spring, I was scheduled to teach a course on Gender and Medicine in America (also a fascinating and timely topic!) but, as the pandemic unfolded, I decided to focus on historical epidemics instead. By learning about epidemics and pandemics in America's past (smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, “Spanish” flu, and more) as well as the many ways that individuals and societies responded, I hope that students will gain greater perspective on the current pandemic.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic influenced the content or structure of the course?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a central part of the course. Each class session begins with a short student presentation on the state of the virus. Many of our discussions focus on the similarities and dissimilarities between past epidemics and the current pandemic. Also, students in the course are chronicling their own experiences living through the pandemic by writing “Pandemic Journals.” Throughout the course, students read lots of primary sources written by people who lived through past epidemics. The Pandemic Journal is a chance for them to create their own primary source based on their experience. For the final project, students will also be sharing the knowledge they learned in the course with the Notre Dame community, so stay tuned!
Can you tell me about your area of research and how you got started and became interested in it?
My research focuses on disability, sickness, medicine, and health in American history, primarily around the time of the American Revolution. When I started graduate school in History, I was fascinated by questions of health and disease, particularly women’s health, as well as by this formative moment just after the Revolution when individuals were deciding, often at odds with one another, how the nation would be structured and what it would mean to be an American. During graduate school, I also discovered the amazing discipline of Disability Studies, which is centered on the idea that disability, like race, class, and gender, is a socially and culturally constructed category, not something only rooted in biology. This line of thinking has informed my research ever since.
I read that you have/will be completing your first book, can you tell me a little about that?
I'm currently finishing a book about disability and civil rights just after the United States’ founding. During this period, people with physical and intellectual disabilities faced significant restrictions on their legal, political, and social rights—think everything from the ability to get married to the ability to vote, immigrate, hold property, and live independently. The book looks at how these exclusions were implemented and how disabled people, at every turn, fought for greater access and equality. I see the book as important not only in stimulating more research about disability in early America, an understudied field, but also in raising awareness about disability rights and equality today.
I read that it is about the exclusion of disabled people from legal and political rights in early America—how have you seen this manifested in the current pandemic?
Great question! Not only are people with physical and intellectual disabilities often at greater risk from the coronavirus because of their medical conditions, but there have also been recent reports of individuals being denied medical care based on their disabilities. Many states and hospitals have medical rationing plans in place that decide who receives treatment and who does not when staff and resources are limited, such as during the pandemic. Disabled people often fall to the bottom of these rationing lists, even though such discrimination is a violation of civil rights laws. During the past few months there has been some advocacy and activism on this front, but it is also more important than ever for disabled people and their allies to know their rights so they can demand the care they deserve.