Bodies, public land, and belonging: the story of disability in Yellowstone National Park

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Even though disabled individuals constitute 26% of the United States' population, the reality and recognition of disability is mostly absent from dominant historical narratives, especially narratives about national parks. I seek to remedy this problem in this Master's thesis by retelling the story of Yellowstone National Park from a disability perspective. Broadly, I argue that able-bodied narratives of wilderness ruled and have continued to rule Park policy, often resulting in the exclusion of disabled individuals from these spaces. Yet, over the course of Yellowstone's 150-year existence, the Park began to slowly consider and integrate more holistic interpretations of disability and disability access. My thesis begins by considering the early years of the Park, the 1860s and 1870s. I argue that four of the 'founding fathers' of Yellowstone were disabled themselves but distracted others from their disability by highlighting ableist narratives of wilderness. My second chapter picks up this theme and considers how these narratives impacted the debate between access and preservation in the 1960s and 1970s. I conclude that even though there were more instances of disability access present, nineteenth-century ideals of wilderness (preservation) controlled Yellowstone policy, making it difficult for disabled individuals to fully experience the Park. My third and final chapter highlights the late 1980s and 1990s to examine how an increase in federal accessibility legislation impacted Yellowstone. Although the Park initially continued to ground itself in exclusive management policies that valued an untouched wilderness - particularly as it pertained to the backcountry - after the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, the Park began to integrate a more holistic interpretation of access that allowed disabled individuals to fully experience Yellowstone's backcountry. Despite these much-needed strides towards more equitable policies and inclusion, the Park still fell short of incorporating true access in all spaces, an aspect that I consider in my conclusion.




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