The 19th century

The 19th century saw greater segregation of disabled people. The workforce had to be more physically uniform to perform routine factory operations. Disabled people were rejected. They were viewed as ‘worthy poor’, as opposed to work-shy ‘unworthy poor’, and given Poor Law Relief (a place in the Workhouse or money from public funds). Disabled people became more and more dependent on the medical profession for cures, treatments and benefits.

Disabled boys in an early Barnardo’s home.

In the last part of the 19th century, a growing number of scientists, writers and politicians began to interpret Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection for their own ends. These ‘eugenicists’ believed that they could improve the quality of the human race by selective breeding. They argued that people with impairments, particularly those born with one (a congenital condition), would weaken the gene pool of the nation and reduce competitiveness.

Increasingly, disabled people were shut away in single-sex institutions for life, or sterilised. Separate special schools and day-centres were set up that denied disabled and non-disabled people the day-to-day experience of living and growing up together.

Eugenicists campaigned for and won these measures using false science. Mary Dendy, an active eugenicist campaigner in the 1890s, in Feeble Mindedness of Children of School Age, asserted that children classified as mentally handicapped should be:

“detained for the whole of their lives” as the only way to “stem the great evil of feeble-mindedness in our country.”

This led to a Royal Commission on Mental Deficiency, which was taken over by eugenicist thinking.

These theories became important at a time when industrialised countries, such as Germany, France, Britain and the USA were competing to create empires. It was important to empire builders to feel superior to other races.

An International Congress in Milan, in 1881, outlawed Sign language, as it was feared that deaf people would outbreed hearing people.

Published in: on February 3, 2007 at 2:45 am  Comments Off on The 19th century  
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