Character assassination

At various times throughout history, if people wanted to denigrate someone’s character, they attributed various impairments to them. An early example is when the Tudor monarchs wanted to discredit Richard III, having usurped him from the throne, and fearing a popular uprising to restore his heirs. Tudor historians created elaborate propaganda of Richard as a disabled and vengeful mass murderer. The portrait of Richard that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery has been X-rayed and it was proved that his hump was added to the picture sixty years after his death.

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The 21st century

Disabled people are still struggling for the right to use public transport, get into buildings, go to school or college with their friends, or to get a job. Although civil rights legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) or the Disability Discrimination Act (UK 1995), have helped, disabled people still often feel that the dominant culture sees them as different from everyone else because of persisting stereotypes of disability.

Anyone can, at any time, become disabled, or develop a physical or mental impairment. Perhaps people’s need to distance themselves from this harsh reality makes it convenient to rely on received negative attitudes and historical stereotypes of disability. These stereotypical images are less troubling than accepting the individuality, the joy, the pain, the appearance, behaviour and the rights of disabled people. This could explain why disability equality has been called ‘the last civil rights movement’.

What disabled people want more than anything else is to be accepted for who they are and to have their rights guaranteed in law and in practice.

Disabled people demonstrate for accessiblility to buses.

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20th century rights movements

From the 1890s, disabled people have struggled for their rights, for human dignity and just to be included. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were hundreds of thousands of First World War veterans with no rights at all in the UK, campaigning for the ‘Right to Work’ through the National League for the Blind and Disabled. They formed the first disability movement in this country, through which disabled people organised collectively against discrimination.

In the 1920s, unions of disabled war veterans were formed all over the UK. They held sit-ins in order to get legislation enacted to ensure their right to employment. As a result, the government brought in a 3% quota system which forced employers to take on registered-disabled employees. This was replaced by the Disability Discrimination Act in 1996.

In the 1990s, disabled activists in the USA campaigned against euthanasia and assisted suicide under the slogan ‘T4 Never Again’

The last 30 years have seen the growth of the Disability Movement, arguing for an end to segregation, and many parents campaigning for human rights for their disabled children. Generally, these movements for social change for disabled people’s rights have not been shown in mainstream films and are hidden from the public gaze.

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The Third Reich

In Germany, during Hitler’s Third Reich, there was a series of propaganda films to show how disabled people were ‘useless eaters’, a burden on the state, and should be sterilised or got rid of.

Feature films, such as Ich klage an (I Accuse) (1941, Wolfgang Liebeneiner), which won a prize at the Venice Biennale, played a crucial role in justifying to the German population the concept of ‘mercy killing’. This film was seen by 13.5 million Germans by 1945 and was very influential, though it is recorded that a minority did not agree with its message.

Ich klage an (I Accuse)

140,000 physically and mentally disabled adults were murdered in 1939-40 at the hands of the doctors of the Third Reich. The killing of adults was reduced by riots in Germany, led by Archbishop Galen of Munich in 1940, but continued more clandestinely. The killing of disabled children went on until 1945, with over 100,000 dying. These programmes were led from Tiergarten, 4, Berlin and so were known as T4.

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Early 20th century

In the first half of the century, eugenicist ideas, along with charitable initiatives, led to increased institutionalisation or sterilisation of disabled people. In 37 states in the USA, born-deaf women and anyone with an IQ (Intelligence Quotient measured on a biased test) under the age of 70 were sterilised in the 1920s and 1930s. Seventeen states still had these laws on the statute book in the 1980s.

The UK Mental Deficency Act of 1913 firmly categorised disabled people, as follows:

Idiots – persons in whose case there exists mental defectiveness of such a degree that they are unable to guard themselves against common physical dangers.

Imbeciles – persons in whose case there exists mental defectiveness which, though not amounting to idiocy, is yet so pronounced that they are incapable of managing themselves and their affairs or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.

Feeble minded – persons in whose case there exists mental defectiveness which, though not amounting to imbecility, is yet so pronounced that they require care, supervision and control for their own protection or for the protection of others. Or, in the case of children, that they appear to be permanently incapable by reason of such defectiveness of receiving proper benefit from the instruction in ordinary school.

Moral defective – persons in whose case there exists mental defectiveness, coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities and who require care, supervision and control for the protection of others.

50,000 children with communication and physical impairments, and more than 500,000 adults were incarcerated in institutions in the first half of the 20th century (many were released in the 1980s). Children with significant learning difficulties were deemed ineducable and those with less significant learning difficulty went to educationally sub-normal schools until 1973.

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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.

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The Renaissance

The Renaissance, based on Classical Greek and Roman ideals, resurrected the idea of the body beautiful. Thousands of paintings showed idealised human forms with perfect complexions, even though many people had impairments and most would have been scarred by smallpox.

One example is the Duke of Urbino. There are several well-known paintings of him, all showing the same profile. It is known that the other side of his face was disfigured.

One of the many profile portraits of the Duke of Urbino.

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Feudal and Medieval Europe

In feudal and medieval Europe, most disabled people were accepted as part of the family or group, working on the land or in small workshops. But at times of social upheaval, plague or pestilence, disabled people were often made scapegoats as sinners or evil people who brought the disasters upon society.

One reaction to this was that during times of plague, thousands of people, called flagellants, wandered around Europe beating themselves to try to make themselves more ‘holy’ so they didn’t get the plague. It was believed that if you were penitent you would not become ill or disabled. This horror of becoming disfigured or different was extremely powerful. If you were different you were somehow marked and this strong prejudice continues to the present day.

In the 15th century, black magic and evil forces were felt to be ever-present. Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, speaking of congenitally impaired children, said:

“Take the changeling child to the river and drown it.”

In 16th-century Holland, those who caught leprosy were seen as sinners and had all their worldly goods confiscated by the state so they had to be supported by the alms of those who were not stricken. If these penitent sinners were humble enough, it was believed their reward was heaven after they died.

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Ancient Greece and Rome

In the West, ideas about the human body have been dominated by Ancient Greek and Roman ideas of the ‘body beautiful’. This ideal, represented by the perfect physique of classical sculptures, such as the discus-thrower, was widely admired, particularly amongst the patrician (ruling) classes.

The philosopher, Aristotle, advised getting rid of a child if it was imperfect. Greek law even dictated that a newborn baby was not really a child until seven days after birth, so that an imperfect child could be disposed of with a clear conscience. From these beliefs arose the enduring idea that ‘good’ looked beautiful and the deformed and disabled were ‘bad’.

The statue of the discus thrower shows an idealised male figure practising sport.

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