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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With the development of the printing press in 1480, when most people couldn’t read, cartoons became a popular way to make political and moral comments. Over the next 500 years, personifications of evil, moral weakness and powerlessness were shown as caricatured disabled people.

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Some famous victims of eugenics

Under the Mental Deficiency Act, two of the Queen Mother’s cousins were incarcerated, as was the ‘lost prince’ – the Queen’s uncle. (The 2002 BBC TV film, The Lost Prince, by Steven Poliakoff, told his story). As a boy, he was diagnosed as an epileptic and shut away from the rest of the family until his death.

Similar laws in America led to President Kennedy’s sister being kept in an institution and then having a frontal lobotomy. This led Kennedy to bring about reform during his Presidency, allowing people with learning difficulties to live in the community.

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Supporters of eugenics

Winston Churchill MP was a supporter of the British Eugenics Society, as were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, founders of the Labour Party, and many other influential intellectuals of the left and right. As Home Secretary at the time the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 finally became law, it is recorded in Hansard that Winston Churchill said:”The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feebleminded classes, coupled with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a race danger. I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.”

Other eugenics supporters included authors D.H. Lawrence, H.G.Wells and Aldous Huxley, and the economist John Maynard Keynes.

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Originally accepted for their part in plundering treasure to help build empires, by the 19th century pirates were considered to be unacceptable robbers and raiders. At this time, they were often portrayed as disabled and evil, with eye patches, wooden legs and hooks, for example R.L. Stevenson’s Long John Silver, or J.M. Barrie’s Captain Hook. In fact, pirates had a simple social security system long before anyone else. They all had shares in the crew’s common purse so, if one was injured and disabled, he was given money for his needs and was unlikely to go on seafaring.

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Entertaining the crowds

In Ancient Rome, the games at the Coliseum included throwing disabled children under horses’ hooves, blind gladiators fighting and dwarfs fighting women.

Disabled people have historically been figures of fun. Court jesters, such as Henry VIII’s William Somner, were often disabled, and dwarfs feature as freaks in many court pictures.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, ‘ships of fools’ containing ‘mad’ people sailed from port to port, where the public paid to come and laugh at them. The ‘fools’ were then abandoned at the end of the tour. In 18th century London, people visited ‘Bedlam’ (the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem) to laugh at the insane.

Circuses and freak shows continued the tradition. A Freak Show is still in operation on Coney Island, USA. This curiosity/fear of the different confirms the non-disabled viewer in the security of his or her own ‘normality’. The highly successful horror film genre is founded on this phenomenon.

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Ideas linking disability with evil fill the folklore of Britain and Europe. The Brothers Grimm collected the oral stories of northern Europe and turned them into their Fairy Tales. For example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel is deformed, blind and ugly, with a stick. Images shown to us early in our lives are bound to affect the way we see and relate to disabled people in later years. This story is still widely read by young children. Many films for children, such as The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner, USA), draw on these tales.

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The Bible

The Bible has been one of the most influential books in Western culture and it contains many negative references to disabled people, eg: the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 21, says that if you are a disabled person you can’t be a priest or take communion; in the New Testament, it says renounce sin and you can ‘take up thy bed and walk’ (Luke, Chapter 5); and disability is seen as a punishment from God, ‘be cured if you sin no more,’ in John, Chapter 9

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In medieval times, witchcraft became linked with disabled people. During the ‘Great Witch Hunts’ of 1480-1680, the Malleus Maleficarum, a book also known as ‘The Hammer of Witches’, went to 70 editions in 14 languages. It told how to identify witches by their impairments, by ‘evidence’ of them creating impairments in others, or by them giving birth to a disabled child. Between eight and 20 million people, mainly women, were put to death as witches across Europe. A good proportion of these were disabled.

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Olympic Games

The Olympic Games, held in Ancient Greece, celebrated physical prowess and perfection, as they still do, today. The Greek gods were supposed to live on Mount Olympus, near Athens, and the games honoured them.

Today, a separate Paralympics is held, which, although it celebrates the achievements of disabled athletes, is still segregated from the Olympics.

The modern Olympics began in 1896.

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