The Brooklyn Bridge, connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn, is one of NYC’s landmarks. At the time of its opening, on May 24, 1883, it was the first steel-wire suspension bridge ever constructed. More than 131 years later, the bridge is still open to cars and pedestrians.
Its designer, John Augustus Roebling, died shortly after the beginning of construction. He had hurt his foot on the construction site and become infected with tetanus. One of the last things he did was place his son, Washington Roebling, in charge of the project.
A few months later, a fire broke out in one of the caissons that would serve as foundations for the towers. Roebling was on site and successfully directed the efforts to extinguish the flames. At the time, the dangers of working in compressed air under water were not known, and many of the workers got decompression sickness, now more commonly known as “the bends.” Roebling was one of them. The impact on his health was major, and he eventually stopped being able to visit the construction site. He supervised the entire construction from his apartment in Brooklyn, with the assistance of his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. According to an article published in the New York Daily News, Roebling was paralyzed and deaf. I have not been able to find more information precisely on how his body changed after the accident.
Many people were of the opinion that Roebling should be replaced by an able-bodied chief engineer. How could someone conduct the largest and most difficult bridge construction project ever without being able to be present on site? Washington and Emily resisted. They made a fantastic team and even improved the design of the bridge as they were building it. Emily, who learned everything about bridge engineering while assisting her husband, would regularly go on the site. Washington had visual contact with their work in progress from his bedroom window in Brooklyn Heights.
On the day of the inauguration, Washington Roebling stayed at home, just like he had done for the previous 13 years. Emily organized a celebratory banquet at their home after the official inauguration. President Arthur attended.
It has been written that Washington Roebling conducted the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge despite his disability. This is the common narrative employed when a disabled person achieves something.
Washington Roebling, along with his wife Emily Warren Roebling, did not successfully design the first steel-wire suspension bridge ever built despite his disability. They designed it despite a social environment devaluing disabled people’s worth and place on the workplace. Together, they created new ways of working that enabled Washington’s active participation. They were pioneers of telework and disability accommodation in the workplace.
One hundred thirty-one years later, the Brooklyn Bridge is still open to cars and pedestrians, both on foot and on wheels.
One hundred thirty-one years later, too many disabled people are still told they cannot do the work they are qualified to do because the workplace is not physically accessible, because the employers pretend not to have the resources to provide accommodation or because of intentional and unintentional lack of imagination. Or because of ableism.
We know very little about the accomplishments of disabled people throughout history. We should be worried.
We need more disability history. We need it to be able to better fight for our present and for our future.