History of disability – How people with a disability were treated by society?

History of disability – something that interested me

Australia is celebrating the Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Week during September 4 – 10 2017. Recently I read that people experiencing a SCI (Spinal Cord Injury) before World War II were likely to have died. The medical knowledge of SCI was lacking, and then scores of soldiers experienced these injuries. That prompted research into the care for people suffering SCI. An example of how good can come out of bad.I wondered about the history of disability and the question “How were people with disabilities treated by society in the past?”

I read the book Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People by Katharine Quarmby. It answered my question, and the following are some excerpts from the book. I recommend the book for anyone wanting a history of disability.

the cover of the book 'scapegoat - why we are failing disabled people'. A good coverage of the history of disability

  • Commonly held beliefs from the past that disabled people are a freakish spectacle, fair game for amusement and mockery, that they deserve to be treated as slaves, that they are blameworthy scapegoats to society’s ills, even that they should not exist at all and should be destroyed.
  • Our attitudes to imperfection and disability descend directly from the concept of the body beautiful of Greek and Roman culture. Being born with a disability in ancient Greece was a misfortune indeed; you were viewed from the outset as unworthy of life. Children were selected and inspected at birth. In his Republic, Plato recommended that the deformed offspring of both the superior and inferior be put away in some “mysterious unknown places”.
  • Plato writes that marrying someone with diseases or deformities of the body or mind can make life unbearable, which suggests that such marriages were not unheard of. Aristotle also writes in “the politics”, “with regard to the choice between abandoning an infant or rearing it, let there be a law that no cripple child be reared.” Aphrodite took a non-disabled lover to compensate for her husband being a “cripple”.
  • Middle Ages — “There was no state provision for people with disabilities. Most lived and worked in their communities, supported by family and friends. If they couldn’t work, their town or village might support them, but sometimes people resorted to begging. They were mainly cared for by monks and nuns who sheltered pilgrims and strangers as their Christian duty.
  • Over this period nationwide networks of hospitals based in (or near) religious establishments began to emerge. Specialised hospitals for leprosy, blindness and physical disability were created. England’s first mental institution, later known as Bedlam, was originally the Bethlehem hospital in the City of London. At the same time, almshouses were founded to provide a supportive place for the disabled and elderly infirm to live.
  • As the Roman Empire gained territory, and Greek power declined, one legacy remained; hostile attitudes towards disability. The extra money and effort needed to support the child were further incentive to abandon him or her. Even the founder of Rome, Romulus, was seen as a proponent of this abandonment. Dionysios of Halikarnassos writes, “Romulus demanded that all the city’s residents should raise all their male children and the first born of the girls and not kill any child under three unless the child was disabled”. The law said disabled or deformed children should be put to death, usually by stoning. Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that the city’s founder Romulus required children who were born disabled to be exposed on a hillside. As time passed however, the practice of this law became less common until eventually there was a complete change in legislature in the third century, when it was required to take care of infants who were disabled.
  • The concept of the disabled person as sinner, and as being in league with the devil, or even being its “spawn” gained tremendous traction during the Middle Ages. Small wonder that it ended up in widespread slaughter, when two major western religions, Judaism and Christianity, had reinforced such powerful, negative concepts about disabled people.
  • During industrial revolution, the position of disabled people worsened. In the USA, a number of states instituted “ugly laws”, banning the unsightly — who were of course mostly impaired people — from streets, schools and restaurants, which continued up until the mid 20th century.
  • Hitler issued a decree stating that the killing programme of disabled children should start in earnest. Less well known was their view that impaired Aryans should also be eliminated. The first law that the Nazis had passed on coming to power was the law for the prevention of genetically diseased offspring, on 14 July 1933. Those with deformities, schizophrenia and other malformation such as learning difficulties were prevented from breeding by sterilisation. The law was based on the laws functioning in Chicago drafted by Henry Laughlin. Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that “the lame and the defective are a scourge on humanity”. Other families with disabled offspring also petitioned Hitler for permission to kill their children. It is estimated that at least 5,000 children, from newborn babies up to juveniles, were murdered. Some were starved, others gassed.
  • No one abroad seemed very interested except other euthanasia enthusiasts. When Germany started to practise euthanasia against disabled children and adults in 1939, one officer in the American Eugenics Society commented it showed “great courage”. In 1942 an article in the journal of American Psychiatric Association called for the killing of all “retarded” children over five. By the end of the war, it is thought that around 200,000 disabled citizens had been murdered, among them the insane, the disabled, the tubercular and the retarded, as the Nazis called them.
  • Back in Britain, the return of the war wounded did increase public sympathy for the physically disabled and those with shell shock. The end of the war did achieve two things for disabled people. It confronted Britain and America with the ugly reflection of their own ideas in Nazi Germany, and it created more sympathy for some categories of disabled people, though not all, within British society.
  • The late 19th century had seen an increase in humanitarianism, often based on the values of Christian charity.

Given the history of disability and how people were treated by society in the past, I am fortunate to have acquired a disability in 2009. Read a little about the accident here. If you would like to read more about the history of disability, the book can be purchased here.

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