In the ancient times physical and mental perfection were idealized. Disability, although common at this time, was viewed as a mark of inferiority. In Ancient Greece, children with deformities were often left out in the weather to die. This practice was called “exposing” and was very common. The philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C) recommended that there should be a law “to prevent the rearing of deformed children.” In his Politics, he wrote, “As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.”
During Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517, we see persons with developmental disabilities treated as anything but human. Martin Luther (1483-1546) denounced children and adults with mental retardation as “filled with Satan.” Luther advised that children with severe mental retardation should be drowned. He described them as a mass of flesh with no soul. The church most often viewed people with disabilities as sinners and believed either the person or family had sinned against God.
Between 1563 and 1601, things began change slightly for the disabled when Queen Elizabeth of England passed a series of laws requiring the state to take care of the “poor and disadvantaged.” Basic care was provided for the poor who were unable to work. Almshouses (or poor houses) were established for elderly poor people. Workhouses were built for vagrants who refused to work. Many with disabilities were placed in almshouses or workhouses, where the conditions were pretty horrifying.
Sometime in the early 1800s disabilities finally began to be viewed by some as a medical issue. Because of this, the disabled were often the subjects of dangerous experiments. Philip Pinel (1745-1826), a leading French psychiatrist of his day, was the first to say that the “mentally deranged” were diseased rather than sinful or immoral. He practiced gentle treatment and patience rather than using physical abuse and chains on hospital patients. This was pretty radical thinking at the time.
Also in the 1800s, social reformer Doretha Dix lobbied state legislatures on behalf of the indigent insane and created the first generation of American mental asylums. During that same time, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), who was the director of the Perkins School for the Blind, established the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Youth in 1848, an experimental boarding school in South Boston for youth with mental retardation.
As institutions grew in size and number, superintendents competed with one another to maintain the largest, most self-sufficient facilities. This led to institutions with over 6,000 people by the 1960s. Many of these schools began to grow their own food in order to become more self-sufficient and put less drain on society.
With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 much attention was brought to minorities including the disabled. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, society’s views have changed as to how we need to accommodate and treat citizens with disabilities. In the process, we have discovered that an accessible society benefits more than just the disabled population. Curb cuts designed for wheelchair users are also used by people with stroller, delivery people, skateboarders, etc. Ramps and elevators make access easier for many people and not just wheelchair users.
We have made great progress in educating those with special needs. No longer do we place these children in homes or institutions but we include them in regular education classrooms instead. This is called inclusion. Today we see inclusion not only in the classroom but also in sports teams, social organizations, churches and in just about every aspect of life.
We’ve come a long way in our thinking about the treatment of people with disabilities. However, that doesn’t mean our work is done. Injustices and prejudices still exist today. We as a society still have much work to do to ensure all people are treated fairly and have equal opportunity regardless of the disability a person may have.
REFERENCES: accessiblesociety.org; hss.state.ak.us/gcdse/history/; wikipedia.org
Pam Rasmussen is a resident of LaFayette. She is the mother of a child with spina bifida and an advocate of special needs children and adults. She can be contacted at email@example.com.