Q: What did people with disabilities have to deal with before laws were made for them?
Well, let’s see… Infants with disabilities have always been subject to infanticide. Ancient societies, as well as some modern ones, kill or abandon disabled infants at birth. These disabilities can be quite mild—a club foot, a cleft lip.
If you were disabled and couldn’t work, in many places you had to beg for your sustenance. That would have been a hard life—on top of whatever illness was making you disabled, you’d have to deal with homelessness, malnutrition, and probably repeated assaults.
Some people with disabilities were accused of being possessed by spirits. Epilepsy was seen that way. It was not unusual to exclude people with disabilities from society; for example, in ancient Israel, a disabled man was not allowed to become a priest.
Elderly disabled people did a little better, because their disabilities came on late in life and it was then still customary to respect people who had managed to live to grow old. Their families generally provided for them, if they had families; if not, they would have had to try to survive just like their younger counterparts.
Some of the first institutions were founded by people who really meant well. They were supposed to be refuges for the disabled and mentally ill. But unfortunately, institutions quickly became hellish places where disease ran rampant, sanitation was nonexistent, and abuse was commonplace. Most people did not live long in institutions, and even during those shortened lifespans, they could not live up to their potential because they were not offered education or training of any sort. Modern larger institutions and group homes, though now subject to legal oversight, still have some of these same problems, and it is not unusual for a disabled person to die in an institution because of abuse or neglect or, notably, by being restrained so severely that they cannot breathe. The difference is that, nowadays, their family can sue.
Being able to work has always been difficult for disabled people. In ancient times, if you could do physical work, you might be okay. People with intellectual disabilities, if they weren’t too severe, might do well enough as farmers or laborers. But people with physical disabilities were unable to support themselves in a world where non-physical work was very hard to come by, and had to depend on “charity”. The workhouses of Victorian-era Europe tried to solve the problem by putting the poor and disabled to work, but workhouses ended up being places where you worked as hard as you could for no pay and starvation-level food, where families were separated and abuse was commonplace. Nowadays, we have sheltered workshops—places where people work for pennies an hour at menial tasks like shredding paper or assembling simple objects. Minimum wage laws usually have specific exceptions for the disabled, who can legally be paid little or nothing.
Disabled children usually haven’t been allowed education. In early human history, disabled children didn’t get education, but that wasn’t so unusual because very few children did. Once education became more widely available, though, schools simply did not accept disabled children. They were assumed to be unteachable—even if their intellectual development was quite typical. Blind children weren’t taught to read because raised text was cumbersome and nobody thought of Braille for a very long time; even once it was invented, it was viewed with suspicion by many teachers. Deaf children were assumed to be incapable of speaking and unable to communicate, intrinsically, and their sign language was suppressed by “teachers”. Children with physical disabilities were assumed to also be intellectually disabled; children with intellectual disabilities were assumed to be incapable of learning anything at all, and so were never taught anything, so that the people around them concluded that they had been right that the children were unteachable. Modern disabled children are offered special education or integrated into mainstream classrooms, but the problem of inadequate education still exists because they have a hard time getting the accommodations they need, and many children are still segregated in special-education classrooms where their curricula are dumbed down and they’re not challenged. Colleges are much less accessible than primary and secondary school, and it is still legal to refuse to admit a college student on the basis of a disability, simply by saying you cannot accommodate their needs.
Disabled people have always been convenient victims of murder and of genocide, whether they made good targets for the local ruffians or were wanted out of the way by the community as a whole. In the early years of the 20th century, the US eugenics movement sought to deny disabled people the right to reproduce, especially those with mild intellectual disabilities, who were called “morons” and painted as inevitably criminal and a dire threat to civilization. Many disabled people were sterilized; some died from the sterilization surgery. In Europe, Germany took the baton and ran with it, using disabled people as the test subjects for their infamous gas chambers. Aktion T4 killed 75,000 disabled Germans, and hundreds of thousands more disabled non-Germans were killed by firing squad, gas chamber, disease, or starvation. In the United States, the eugenics movement died out as we discovered the horrors it led to, but lobotomies became popular, and many mentally ill people had their frontal lobes destroyed in the name of treatment.
Today, it is technically illegal to kill a disabled person, but that doesn’t mean that we always prosecute the murder of the disabled the way we prosecute the average murder. It is not uncommon for the parent or caregiver of a disabled person to kill them by starvation, neglect, or abuse, and then to be let off with a short sentence, or none at all, by a judge who reasons that they have suffered enough having to take care of the disabled person that they later murdered. There are “mercy killings” that happen when the caregivers kill their disabled charges—not by request (that would be assisted suicide), but because they decide that their disabled charge should not live. These tend to result in quite short sentences, too. And though the killing of black people by police gets more press, disabled people are just as much at risk (and God help you if you’re both black and disabled). It’s not unusual for a person to be in suicidal crisis, staring at a knife and thinking about stabbing themselves in the heart, only for the police to be called and shoot them because they are holding a knife.
But despite all of this, there has been steady improvement. Public buildings in many countries are required to be wheelchair-accessible. Employers are forbidden to discriminate overtly on the basis of disability (though they do often manage to find someone “more qualified” or find a reason unrelated to the disability to “lay off” a disabled worker). People with disabilities can get government assistance to help them stay alive, though this income level is about 30% below the federal poverty line and recipients are not allowed to save more than a very small amount of money. Though disabled people who are abused often have a very hard time being believed when they ask for help, such abuse is still illegal and they do have a chance at justice. And people with disabilities themselves are banding together, often via the Internet, to advocate for each other. Nowadays, when someone kills their disabled child and the media call it “understandable”, a rather large number of disabled people cry out against it, and people are starting to listen.
We’ve come a long way—but we’re nowhere near equality yet. I have confidence that someday, we’ll be equal not just in theory but in practice—that we’ll get what we need to live, that we’ll work alongside our neighbors, go to school and learn what we can learn, and have our lives valued just as much as other people’s.