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Illuminating Humanities: Lauren Currie

Lauren Currie, First Place in the Glasscock Undergraduate History Paper Competition (2023), Department of History, Texas A&M

The Glasscock Center is excited to continue this series that highlights humanities research at Texas A&M, as well as the vital role played by the humanities beyond the academy.

For this highlight, we invite Lauren Currie to tell us about her paper titled “Polio, Disability Rights, and the ADA: A Rolling Movement by Polio Survivors for Accessibility and Basic Civil Rights” which earned first place in the Glasscock Undergraduate History Paper Competition (2023). 

Lauren Currie is a Senior pursuing a major in History at Texas A&M University, as well as a Legal History Certificate from the History department in preparation for attending law school after graduation.

Currie received first place in the Glasscock Undergraduate History Paper Competition (2023) for her paper titled “Polio, Disability Rights, and the ADA: A Rolling Movement by Polio Survivors for Accessibility and Basic Civil Rights”. The Glasscock Center sponsors an annual essay competition for undergraduate students; eligible submissions must be written for a history course taken within the previous calendar year. Winners receive a certificate and a modest cash prize. 

Currie did not expect to see the word “Congratulations” when she opened an email about the essay competition. She did not anticipate winning anything, much less earning the highest award, “I’m sitting there on the couch, just kind of in shock,” she says, “It didn’t process till a week later.” 

Winning the essay competition boosted Currie’s confidence and reinforced her enthusiasm for legal history research. “This was the only piece of writing I had confidence in, like I was legitimately proud of it,” she says, “[this award] confirmed that my writing and research is good…it’s so validating because I worked so hard on that paper.”

Currie considers it a huge honor to receive the award and expresses gratitude that she followed her friends’ advice to submit her paper. For Currie, the Glasscock Center’s sponsorship of this contest highlights the importance of historical research and the humanities. “A lot of times history is kind of pushed to the side or ignored,” Currie says, and  “it’s inspiring to know that there are people that do care about history and the humanities.” 

Currie originally wrote her paper for Dr. Katherine Unterman’s (HIST) course “Pandemics in American History,” which covers how the U.S. responded to several pandemics and their impact on American society. Dr. Unterman’s lectures on poliomyelitis, more commonly known as polio, inspired Currie to investigate the role polio survivors played in the disability rights movement. 

In the prize-winning paper, Currie analyzes how the polio epidemic connects to the disability rights movement by examining polio survivors’ personal narratives and biographies. Her research underscores the vast diversity in rhetoric and discourse within the polio survivor community. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt intentionally hid his disability from the public while others intentionally displayed theirs. 

By challenging the stigma of disability and condemning dehumanizing treatment, activists like Ronald Mace, Ed Roberts, and Judy Heumann in the mid-20th century revolutionized how American society perceived polio survivors. Currie argues that their refusal to “play by society’s rules” was a major factor in the movement’s success and visibility. Currie references a quote from a 1977 article in The New York Times from Ed Roberts, who was almost completely paralyzed from the neck down due to the long-term effects of polio, Roberts said, “We were considered vegetables a few years ago, but now the vegetables are rising.” 

Currie’s research influenced her decision to write her senior thesis on how the visibility of the disability rights movement impacted the polio survivors’ community. Her research also steered her towards studying employment law because polio survivors’ fight for disability rights was essentially intertwined with their experiences of discrimination in employment. Currie plans to graduate this fall and publish her prize-winning paper in a scholarly journal.