Book Cover

Disabled Upon Arrival

Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability

Jay Timothy Dolmage

6 x 9, 190 pp.

Pub Date: March, 2018

Subjects: Rhetoric & Communication
Disability Studies
American Studies
Race & Ethnicity

order Hardcover $79.95   ISBN: 978-08142-1362-9
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Disabled Upon Arrival is methodologically innovative with ambitious aims. From its comparative approach to its visual analysis, this book will be beneficial in classes on rhetorical method. It also makes significant contributions to rhetorical studies of immigration and will likely find its place on many such syllabi.” —Karma R. Chávez, Rhetoric Review

Disabled Upon Arrival reaches into new territory, bringing in detailed and pathbreaking discussions of the connections between photography, race, disability, representation, nationality, im/migration, contagion, and movement. It is beautiful, original, relevant, and needed.” —Margaret Price, author of Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life

“Beautifully written, sometimes almost poetic, and yet strongly argumentative. This is by far the best work on the subject of eugenics and immigration.” —Susan Schweik, author of The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public

In North America, immigration has never been about immigration. That was true in the early twentieth century when anti-immigrant rhetoric led to draconian crackdowns on the movement of bodies, and it is true today as new measures seek to construct migrants as dangerous and undesirable. This premise forms the crux of Jay Timothy Dolmage’s new book Disabled Upon Arrival: Eugenics, Immigration, and the Construction of Race and Disability, a compelling examination of the spaces, technologies, and discourses of immigration restriction during the peak period of North American immigration in the early twentieth century.

Through careful archival research and consideration of the larger ideologies of racialization and xenophobia, Disabled Upon Arrival links anti-immigration rhetoric to eugenics—the flawed “science” of controlling human population based on racist and ableist ideas about bodily values. Dolmage casts an enlightening perspective on immigration restriction, showing how eugenic ideas about the value of bodies have never really gone away and revealing how such ideas and attitudes continue to cast groups and individuals as disabled upon arrival. 


Jay Timothy Dolmage is Associate Professor of English at the University of Waterloo and author of the award-winning book Disability Rhetoric.



Immigration Has Never Been about Immigration

Ellis Island and the inventions of race and disability

Canada’s Pier 21 and the memorialization of immigration

Technologies of immigration restriction

Affective spaces of eugenics

Responsibility for Tomorrow


There are four black and white images of faces tiled and spaced evenly on a page. Gender has not been assigned to any of these images. In the top left image, there is an eleven-year-old with close-cropped hair, wearing a striped short, labeled a "low-grade imbecile," a hand reaching from out of the frame to hold up the chin, with eyes directed to our right; in the top right image, there is a twenty-year-old with a dark mustache, wearing a suit jacket, labeled "low moron"; in the bottom right image, a teenager wearing a heavy coat is pictured, labeled "a constitutional inferior"; in the bottom left image there is a seventeen-year-old with blond hair, labeled a "high-grade imbecile."

Image One. “Figures 2-5.” “Examples of Faces of Feeble-Minded Immigrants.” Manual of the Mental Examination of Aliens. Treasury Department of the United States Public Health Service, Miscellaneous Publication #18, 1918. Owned by: Department of Health and Human Services (Public Domain).

This image is labeled "North African Immigrant," and the picture shows a seemingly middle-aged, dark-skinned person with a beard, a knit or woven hat, and a large hooded jacket, frayed at the bottom and closed with buttons at the front. The subject's legs are bare. The subject also has a tag affixed to his jacket with the number "2" printed on it.

Image Two. “North African Immigrant.” National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument, Pub Dom, Sher 24.4A-6.

This image is labeled "Eastern European Immigrant," and the picture shows a young person with a beard, a woven hat with a wide brim angled to the side of the head. The subject wears a sort of cape, a vest, and a white shirt tied at the neck. The subject plays a flute that is held out in front of the subject. The subject seems quite tanned but not particularly dark-skinned.

Image Three. “Eastern European Immigrant.” National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument, Pub Dom, Sher 23.1A-8.

This image pictures three people on the roof of a building (a common backdrop for Sherman's photos). On the left, seated on a bench, there is a dark-skinned person with their head turned to our right, wearing a knee-length jacket. Beside him another dark-skinned person stands on the bench, so as to draw attention to the subject's comparatively smaller stature-the subject stands at about the same head-level as the seated person. This middle subject is wearing an ankle-length jacket with fur trim, and their chin is raised in the air. On the far right, there is a third subject, also dark-skinned and standing on the bench and just slightly taller than the person in the middle of the picture. This final subject wears a turban, and their head is larger than those of the other two subjects. This final subject also wears an ankle-length coat and holds their hands on their waist. "The image is labeled Subramaino Pillay (Right) and Two Microcephalics."

Image Four. “Subramaino Pillay (Right) and Two Microcephalics” (Mesenholler and Sherman 96).

This image shows a side angle of "Perumall Sammy," and the hand-written notation at the top of the photo suggests Sammy was "certified for congenital deformity of the abdomen, two arms and legs being joined at the abdomen. . . ." Sammy wears a long jacket, opened at the front where a pair of legs and arms, bound and partially covered with silk, are shown to be attached to Sammy's stomach. Sammy has dark skin, a mustache, long hair, and a hat perched at the very top of his head.
Image Five. “Perumall Sammy, Hindoo, ex SS Adriatica April 14, 1911, certified for congenital deformity of the abdomen, two arms and legs being joined at the abdomen . . .” (Mesenholler and Sherman 97).

This image shows a young person (the title genders the subject as female) wearing a white headscarf, a vest, a blouse with floral stitching down the sleeves and front, and many beaded necklaces. The subject gazes directly at the camera. Though the photo is black and white, the eyes have an unusual, light color that has a striking effect. The subject's skin is tanned.

Image Six. “Ruthenian Girl.” National Geographic (1907), page 324.

The "Russian Giant" stands with hands on the shoulders of two white people in suits, whose heads reach only to the Russian immigrant's waist. The subjects in suits each have moustaches. The Russian wears a top hat and tuxedo with tails. The chain of a pocket watch is visible where the suit jacket is open. There is a set of double doors behind the subject, and the Russian is clearly taller than this doorway.
Image Seven. “Russian Giant” (Mesenholler and Sherman 99).

The "Burmese" man stands between two white subjects in suits, the same two subjects from the "Russian Giant" picture. The Burmese subject has dark skin and stands at waist-height of the subjects on either side, and holds a top hat. The Burmese subject wears a double-breasted suit.
Image Eight. “Burmese” (Mesenholler and Sherman 98).

In this photo, "General Tom Thumb" is on the far left, wearing a military outfit and holding a military hat in their hand. The military outfit has been specially tailored for Tom in a small size. Beside Tom is Lavinia Warren, slightly taller in stature, wearing an elaborate white gown. "The Giant" wears a three-piece suit and stands beside Warren, fully twice Lavinia's height. On the far right is Commodore Nutt, also wearing a three-piece suit. Nutt is about the same height as Tom and Lavinia, and all three are much shorter than "The Giant"-this is the contrast that the image is seeking, and which Sherman's photos seem to mimic. The photo is available in the above-mentioned archive of accompanying images.
Image Nine. “Gen. Tom Thumb, Miss Lavinia Warren, Commodore Nutt and the Giant.” Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), Portrait photographs 1850–1870.

In this photo, Frank wears a black suit and tie, with a white collar. Frank is light-skinned and has a dimpled chin and a white moustache, and wears circular spectacles with a small chain leading from the right lens back toward the ear. The black top hat on Frank's head is made of a heavy material with a wide brim and sits low on Frank's forehead so that the forehead is fully obscured and Frank's eyes are shadowed. Sherman's hand-written caption, written on the photo above Frank's head, says "Mary Johnson, 50, Canada came as 'Frank Woodhull' SS New York Oct. 4 '08. Lived 30 yrs. in U.S. Dressed 15 yrs. in men's clothes."
Image Ten. “Lived 15 years as a man: woman wore disguise until halted at Ellis Island,” New York Daily Tribune (October 5, 1908), page 14.

This image depicts a young, light-skinned person sitting upright on a medical gurney with legs stretched out in front, wearing a suit with a vest, a white shirt, and no tie. The pant legs are pulled up, and the subject's feet are bare-the feet are in the foreground of the photograph, resting on a pillow, slightly blurred. The toes seem to point towards one another and the feet are misshapen. The subject has black bands around both calves, perhaps garters, suggesting that the socks and shoes have been removed. The subject has short-cropped hair and looks directly into the camera. A tag is pinned onto the lapel of the subject's jacket with the letter "X" written on it. If the subject used mobility aids, they are not in the frame.
Image Eleven. “Deformed Idiot to Be Deported” (Library and Archives Canada).

Anna Maria Carlevaris discusses this photo at some length in her dissertation, and provides an interpretation of the symbolism of the image: “The crippled [sic] boy is centered in the composition and stands apart from the group behind him; he probably has been positioned there by the photographer. Neither the group, nor the boy, are close enough to the camera to evoke feelings of intimacy from the viewer but neither are they far enough away not to be recognized [. . .] by lessening the personalizing or honorific aspect of the photograph a distance between the viewer and the subject is constructed [. . .] the boy with crutches, so 'obviously' defective, dispassionately gazes back across an infinite gulf of silence. The boy wears the sign of his difference; his body displays the reason for his deportation. The other figures, because they are members of this group, are also defective in some way [their proximity to the boy is incriminating]. Their failure does not announce itself physically, but it is implied by association. (38)”
Image Twelve. “Immigrants to Be Deported” (Library and Archives Canada).

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