Abstract: A serious handicap upon the defective workman in search of employment: Law, Liability, and Disability in the Early Twentieth-Century United States

Nate Holdren


In this paper I argue that legal decisions in lawsuits brought by people with disabilities helped create incentives for employers to practice discriminatory hiring against people with disabilities. Workers compensation legislation, responding to an epidemic of workplace accidents, increased employers' liability for employees' workplace injuries. Despite disabled people's widespread workforce participation, these laws presumed able-bodied employees. This gap between law and economic practice made injuries to disabled people legally ambiguous, resulting in numerous lawsuits by disabled workers who suffered further disabling injuries. Many lawsuits dealt in particular with already one-eyed workers who suffered eye injuries. Courts debated whether workers blinded by the loss of one eye should be compensated for lost quantity of body (losing one eye) or lost capacity (losing all sight). Over time courts increasingly held employers liable for total post-injury incapacity. Increased injury liability led many employers to stop hiring disabled workers. Under early twentieth-century U.S. workplace injury law, disabled workers either bore greater individual risks of injury or posed a financial risk for employers, which lowered disabled workers' job prospects.