Lecturer in History

United States history; disability history and studies; social movements; policy; history of medicine; history of technology; gender and sexuality; history of education 

Madeline J. Williams is a historian of disability and of the United States. Her work positions disability as both a kind of lived experience and as a powerful framework for analyzing politics and culture. She researches and teaches about disability as fundamentally intersecting and interacting with race, class, gender, sexuality, and more.

Her current book project, Disability Democracy: Blind-Led Organizing and the Making of Modern America, tells the story of a crucial early chapter in the long history of social movement building around disability. It centers on the emergence and activities of political associations led by blind Americans. Activists founded these associations across the United States beginning in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Organizers built on the social connections, technological innovations, and skills gained from their education at residential state schools for blind children founded by Christian philanthropists beginning in the 1830s. The associations arose in response to significant transformations of American state and society. In the wake of the formal end of chattel slavery, the elaboration of a Jim Crow order maintained and extended racial hierarchies in all spheres of national life. This context, coupled with intensifying economic inequality and the rise of a mainstream eugenics movement, shaped the blind-led associations’ work, including the horizons and limitations of their imagination for changemaking. Among other achievements, blind activists were remarkably effective at promoting policy initiatives through grassroots campaigns at the state level. Some of these policies would have unexpected afterlives in major federal disability programs through the twentieth century and into the present day. Disability Democracy demonstrates the place of disabled-led organizing as one of the crucial social movements that forged the modern United States.

Alongside her research, Williams engages in conversations about the promise of disability frameworks and practices for the pursuit of more just educational spaces and societies. She explored aspects of this work in a review essay called “Reading the Past to Design Accessible Futures: Blindness and Education from Nineteenth-Century Tactile Books to Twenty-First-Century 3-D Printing,” published in the journal American Quarterly.

Williams’s work has been supported by research and funding bodies including the American Historical Association (AHA); the Center for American Political Studies (CAPS); the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History; the Consortium for History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM); and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. She holds a B.A. from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. from Harvard University.