Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2019

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 09/04/2021

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Educational Policy and Leadership Studies

First Advisor

Ogren, Christine A

First Committee Member

Baynton, Douglas C

Second Committee Member

Colvin, Carolyn

Third Committee Member

Mobily, Kenneth E

Fourth Committee Member

Sanders, Katrina M


Using archival sources, this dissertation argues that ideas and norms about disability shaped the experiences and careers of every city teacher and every prospective teacher in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit between 1930 and 1970. This work contributes both to the historiography of disability in U.S. education and to the historiography of U.S. teachers with two assertions. First, historians of education need to reconsider the ways in which we approach, analyze, and write about disability. Second, by adding a discussion of teachers’ bodies and disability to the historiography of teachers, we can better understand teachers’ experiences and the ways in which school leaders attempted to define and enforce standards of normality.

After the first chapter of this dissertation establishes the work’s argument and contributions to the historiography, Chapter 2 explores how a bevy of research on teachers’ maladjustment and health, published between 1930 and 1970, undergirded educational leaders’ ideas about teachers and disability. The analysis of these studies reveals four themes: the idea that women with inherent personality defects and deviations were attracted to the teaching profession, a concern that these unbalanced women would irreparably harm their students, a reliance on unsubstantiated data and subjective measures or claims, and a focus on a woman’s physical appearance or beauty as emblematic of her teaching ability. Chapter 3 is an analysis of how boards of education and board officials in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, and a number of southern cities linked disability with teacher incompetence and granted medical doctors an enormous amount of power in determining which candidates were fit to teach. Chapter 4 contains an analysis of how these city boards of education appropriated disability discourses for their own agendas, using the language of the eugenics movement and linking age with disability to weaken tenure and pension protections. Boards of education also associated speech “defects” with other disqualifying disabilities in order to justify racist and xenophobic hiring practices. Chapter 5 examines the agency of individual teachers and missed opportunities for group agency. This chapter is an analysis of the tactics teachers, professional organizations, and teachers’ unions used to counter or, more often, to indirectly enforce medical examinations and disability policies. Chapter 6 concludes the dissertation with a cursory look at how Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 forced the Los Angeles Board of Education to amend its disability policies and a call for further analysis of how disability discourses have shaped the U.S. education system. The conclusion also reiterates this dissertation’s overarching argument: while disability rules and regulations most affected the teachers school officials identified as disabled, all teachers had to establish their competence through proving their lack of disability at various points throughout their careers. Thus, fears and stereotypes about disability affected all teachers—disabled and nondisabled—in these particular city schools between 1930 and 1970.


city schools, disability, licensure, retirement, teachers, U.S. education


x, 261 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 255-261).


Copyright © 2019 Kristen Chmielewski

Available for download on Saturday, September 04, 2021