Inside Columbia


Local Author Dives Into the History of Disability Rights in America

By Inside Columbia
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Photo by L.G Patterson

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Sean Spence has always had a passion for writing. Though he had dreams of being a professional novelist, Spence later learned that his skills were more attuned to nonfiction work.

After graduating from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in history, he first thought he would pursue a career in journalism, but instead opted to work in politics and marketing. But no matter he was professionally, Spence always managed to find space in his schedule to include nonprofit work and volunteering. He eventually pivoted into working for nonprofits professionally, using his public relations and marketing knowledge for organizations like the Salvation Army, for which he now works on event planning and marketing management.

And while he’s never become a novelist,Spence has become a published author with his second book, Breaking Barriers:Disability History in the United States, recently being released.

Spence first began writing professionally more than 10 years ago, around the time he required the use of a wheelchair for transportation due to his multiple sclerosis. That’s what caused Spence to begin questioning the history of accessibility and looking into those who have advocated for disability rights.

Spence says that as he started to read about disability history, he began to understand the lack of literature and documented disability history in the United States. His initial search led him to Justin Dart, an American disabilities activist who helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which led to the implementation of accessibility structures, like ramps, elevators and curb cuts. As Spence learned more about the inspiring work of Dart, he wanted to describe Dart’s story and his work for disability rights in the United States.

But, after further research, Spence says he discovered that Dart did not want a book written about himself as he believed it would take away from the movement as a whole. So Spence altered the direction of his planned book to focus on the history of disability rights in the United States, dating back to the Revolutionary War. The book covers key individuals, events and concepts that have affected the history of disability rights.

As he dug deeper into the history of disability rights, Spence says he uncovered eye-opening, encouraging stories of advocates over the years who altered the movement in the United States. Each individual’s story that he gathered from research and interviews pushed him to continue his work, finally culminating into the moving book that is Breaking Barriers: Disability History in the United States. Each of these individuals faced significant obstacles but continued to work hard for the greater good of the disabled community and society as a whole.

One major theme that appears throughout the book, and what Spence says is the most powerful theme, is the idea of independence. “The thing that people with disabilities want more than anything else is to live life just like anybody else,” he says. “Very often it takes very little accommodation to make this possible.”

Spence says he would really like to see others get inspiration from the book and to see these stories included in education curriculums. He also hopes to get feedback from those who are passionate about and involved in the movement; people who can help fill in any missing pieces from disability history or expand on his research.

For more inspiring history about the disability rights movement, check out Breaking Barriers: Disability History in the United States by Sean Spence, available at Skylark Bookshop.

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