Why we are failing disabled people – Katharine Quarmby

Why we are failing disabled people by Katharine Quarmby – a book summary

I’ve read a few books about living with a disability, and some of my blogs will share a summary of each book. If you like the summary, please buy the book and read it. This review is for SCAPEGOAT – Why we are failing disabled people by Katharine Quarmby.

Why we are failing disabled people?SCAPEGOAT – Why we are failing disabled people Kindle edition on Amazon.com.au

SCAPEGOAT – Why we are failing disabled people Book on Booktopia.com.au



  • 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 for society’s ills, even that they should not exist at all and should be destroyed – live on and even thrive amongst some people today.
  • 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.
  • We know that disabled people made pilgrimages on foot to holy sites such as the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury in search of a cure or relief. Sometimes disabled people had to battle injustice. In 1297 the residents of the leper house in the Norfolk village of West Somerton mutinied against the thieving abbot and his men, looting and demolishing the buildings and killing the guard dog.
  • Lameness acquired in battle, or limbs lost, however, were accepted – up to a point.
  • More disabled in ancient Rome than today.
  • As the Roman Empire gained territory, and Greek power declined, one legacy remained;  hostile attitudes toward disability.  The extra money and effort needed to support the child were only further incentives 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 firstborn of the girls and not kill any child under three unless the child was disabled”.
  • Roman laws on disability – The Twelve Tables included a law that said disabled or deformed children should be put to death, usually by stoning. They also stipulated that if a free person or slave was disabled by an individual, that was cause for payment or similar disfigurement.
  • In addition, Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote that the city’s founder Romulus required children who were born disabled to be exposed on a hillside. Historians think that this was a fairly common practice due to a believed high number of congenital defects, which are sourced due to poor nutrition, incest, and disease. 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.
  • Notable disabled Romans.
    • Tiberius (42 BC–37 AD, ruled 14–37 AD) was a paranoid sexual deviant. While Tiberius was in his later years in Capri, rumours abounded as to what exactly he was doing there. Historian Suetonius recorded rumoured lurid tales of sexual perversity, including graphic depictions of child molestation, cruelty, and most frequently, his paranoia. While heavily sensationalized, Suetonius’ stories at least paint a picture of how Tiberius was perceived by the Roman senatorial class, and how he impacted the Roman Principate during his 23 years of rule.
    • Caligula, (12–41 AD, ruled 37–41 AD) nephew of Tiberius, suffered from paranoia and narcissism. He believed that he was a god and that the god of the sea was plotting against him. He was an alcoholic, made his horse a consul, ordered political prisoners decapitated over dinner, married his sister, and ordered political assassinations. According to multiple classical sources, his mental health deteriorated suddenly after a severe fever that nearly killed him. This suggests that organic brain damage from a high body temperature or encephalitis (possibly malarial) may have caused or worsened alongside preexisting mental illness.
    • Quintus Pedius[11] was a deaf painter who is mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History.
    • Nero, (37–68 AD, ruled 54–68 AD), nephew of Caligula, suffered from the same disorders as his uncle, along with Histrionic personality disorder. He ordered the deaths of his mother and step-brother, had Christians crucified and burned, declared himself a god, and allegedly started the Fire of Rome, only to play the lyre during it.
    • Commodus (161–192 AD, ruled 180–192 AD) suffered from narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders. He renamed Rome, the Empire, the Praetorian Guard, and various streets after himself, and believed himself to be the reincarnation of Hercules. He once had a servant burned to death for making his bath too cold.
    • Elagabalus (c. 203–222, ruled 218–222) catapulted venomous snakes at the people of Rome, invited guests to dinner only to give them inedible bread and leave lions in their bedrooms, used children’s entrails for Divination, and held lotteries where the prizes consisted of wooden boxes containing bees, dead dogs and flies. He turned the Royal Palace into a public brothel.
    • Justin II (520–578, ruled Eastern Rome 565–578).[12] The temporary fits of insanity into which Justin fell warned him to name a colleague. According to John of Ephesus, as Justin II slipped into the unbridled madness of his final days, he was pulled through the palace on a wheeled throne, biting attendants as he passed. He reportedly ordered organ music to be played constantly throughout the palace in an attempt to soothe his frenzied mind.
    • Claudius I (10 BC–54 AD, ruled 41–54).[13] It is argued amongst historians whether Seneca the younger’s depiction of him was political satire, or in fact an account of his possible speech and physical disorders.
  • The concept of the disabled person as a 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 the 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 passed upon 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 the 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 American movement had its roots in the return of physically impaired veterans from the Vietnam War, who sought to reduce physical barriers to their inclusion in society.
  • Disabled people wanted equal rights, not a begging box.  The first demonstration to hit public consciousness was on July 7 1988 at the Department of Health and Social Security, where disabled people gathered to protest against benefit cuts.  It was followed by disabled people chaining themselves to, and protesting against, inaccessible buses and having to travel in the guards’ van on trains.
  • The late 19th century had seen an increase in humanitarianism, often based on the values of Christian charity.

Please read the book to see why we are failing disabled people. Click here for information about the blog WheelchairJohn. More information about me is found at johnduthie.com

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