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A Brief History of Disability

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A Brief History of Disability

Laura Taylor, Invisible Disabilities Co-Officer

Disability has been present in human civilization since the dawn of humanity; however, the perception of it is complex and ever evolving.

Attitudes towards people with disabilities have varied drastically in both space and time, and while the trajectory has not always been upwards for us, in the present day we are making strides in liberation greater than any other time in history.

While perception of disability in history varies across cultures, a common theme has been the notion that it is linked to actions of a God or religious philosophy. Christians in medieval Britain believing disability was either ‘punishment for sin’ or a sign that someone was closer to God by being in purgatory on Earth. The Zoroastrian scriptures of 2 BC in South Asia envisioned a 'perfect world' in which there were no people with disabilities, leading to actions to eliminate those with disabilities in order to achieve a perceived utopia.

Sometimes people with disabilities were provided with support and assistance, notably in African communities and in 17th century Britain. However, at other times those with disabilities were segregated and sometimes even murdered, notably in South Asia until the 16th century where people with disabilities were usually killed as infants, and anyone who developed a disability was likely to be murdered, and in early 20th century Britain where segregation in institutions was the norm.

The early 20th century rise of eugenics in Europe was extremely damaging to the disability community, with widespread belief among government and wider society that people with disabilities held back the progress of society. Giving rise to the widespread use of asylums and workhouses resembling prisons. While eugenic beliefs were prevalent across the Western world, the actions of the Nazis in World War II led to a general rejection of eugenicist ideas and increasing support. Many soldiers became disabled in battle, forcing the government and public to reconsider their beliefs, as it was their war heroes who now needed the same support as other with disabilities.

Rights for people with disabilities have continued increasing since the 1945, with increasing social, financial, employment and housing support being legislated for and education increasing.

The wake of the Civil Rights Movement led to a massive increase in organization of the disability community to campaign for their rights, giving rise to the development of the social model of disability, providing an academic description to the experiences of those with disabilities in society.

The term neurodiversity was coined in 1998 by Judy Sanger, extending the social model of disability to given a rich and diverse understanding of human nature. While neurodiverse people today still struggle to be seen through the lens of social disability, the existence of the field allows for greater ability to self-advocate.

While there is so much more to be done to liberate people with disabilities in our society, reflecting on our history provides cause for hope. The dedication of disability activists over the last century has greatly improved the livelihoods of people with disabilities, and the current generation of dedicated activists are set to continue our liberation.


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