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  • The Corner Society: The History of "Impairment"

The Corner Society: The History of "Impairment"

  • Wednesday, November 01, 2023
  • 5:30 PM - 7:00 PM
  • 1441 East Avenue


Registration is closed

Hollerith card for general mortality investigation by life insurance companies, with columns for registering impairments.From Medico-Actuarial Mortality Investigations, Vol. I (New York: The Actuarial Society of America, 1912), 136.

Mara Mills, New York University Center for Disability Studies

The History of "Impairment"

“Impairment” is a key term in Anglophone disability studies and medical discourse, referring to physical difference, limitation, or injury. Yet its history has been obscured or misunderstood. When disability scholars and activists critique the definition of impairment, they generally place the concept in the genealogy of medicalization and inappropriate pathologization. This talk, in contrast, traces the development of the impairment concept to the offices of modern American corporations, where actuaries played a key role alongside doctors as they employed new information technologies to quantify risk. Life insurance companies defined impairments, established surveillance systems to discover them, and created databases held by secretive institutions like the Medical Information Bureau (MIB), with the help of early computing innovators like Melvil Dewey and Herman Hollerith. Beneath the seemingly objective measurement of physical traits, impairments ultimately signified to private corporations the possibility of financial loss or a justification for discrimination. This talk is drawn from a forthcoming article by Mara Mills and Dan Bouk, written after years of speculation among the authors that our expertise—the history of disability and technology (Mills) and the history of life insurance (Bouk)—has more than a passing affinity.

Mara Mills is Associate Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and founding co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies. She is also a founding editorial board member of the journal Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience. She is recently co-editor of Testing Hearing: The Making of Modern Aurality (Oxford 2020), Crip Authorship: Disability as Method (NYU 2023), and a forthcoming special issue of Osiris on "Disability and the History of Science" (2024). In-progress publications include the NSF-funded edited collection How to be Disabled in a Pandemic (NYU Press), a coauthored book with Jonathan Sterne on time stretching, and an NEH-funded collaborative research project with Michele Friedner on "The Global Cochlear Implant."

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