You Know You’re Disenfranchised When Your History Isn’t Even an Elective
American history is the story of African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ and all marginalized people. What happens in this country happens to all of us, but the version of history taught in classrooms is often just one side of the story. It’s the way that the colonizers saw it, the politicians, the barons, tycoons and the filthy rich. We study the shiny pieces of their lives and are offered the impression they made society better, and they certainly did for some...the ones who looked and lived exactly like them.
I want to talk about the other side. It’s important to be aware of who was affected by the Winner’s of History, and what the consequences were. America’s “others” deserve to have their stories known. In recent years diverse histories have surfaced, usually as electives or minors in higher education, where “identity” and “diversity” have become popular buzzwords.
Even in that arena, the disabled community doesn’t get a seat at the table when it comes to recognizing it as an unique identity with its own history and culture (or maybe their seat can only be accessed by the back door?) Society can’t acknowledge what they don’t know. That’s why disability history should be taught in schools, and these three topics would be a great start:
Eugenics - Humans seem to be on a perpetual quest to find someone they can declare to be inferior to themselves in one way or another. This unfortunate tendency fueled the U.S. Eugenics Movement, which began in the early 1900s. The ideals of the movement involved using selective breeding to rid the country of what were deemed less desirable traits in its people, thereby creating a perfect race and curing America’s social ills.
Eugenicists used junk science to support the idea that nonwhites, jews, immigrants and the disabled must be eliminated, usually by means of segregation and forced sterilization. All it took to have a person, or even a whole family, admitted to an institution was for almost anyone to decide they were too stupid, ugly, poor or crippled.
Ugly words like “imbecile”, “moron”, “feeble minded” and “idiot” became official medical distinctions with which to label people with various cognitive and physical disabilities. Today those words are commonly hurled as insults from the mouths of people who have no idea of their hateful origins.
According to the Michigan Institute for Health Care Policy and Innovation, more than 60,000 people in 32 states were sterilized against their will, or without proper consent due to Eugenics practices. It took nothing less than the undeniable similarity of Hitler’s tactics in World War II for Eugenics to fall out of favor.
Institutions - The wickedness of institutional life is best understood through personal accounts. For that I recommend the 1972 exposé Willowbrook: The last great disgrace, as well as the many followup films on the subject. It’s a tale of abuse, neglect and tourture at the hands of doctors, staff and even other unsupervised inmates.
Of course there were many other institutions across the country. Maybe they weren’t all as bad as Willowbrook, but none of them were good. Will little, if any, exception institutions were grim places to warehouse a segment of the population that was to be kept out of sight.
Protests: The 504 Sit-In & The Capitol Crawl
1973 brought Section 504 of the American Rehabilitation Act, the country’s first civil rights legislation that included protections for people with disabilities, but was not without a fight. Five years later, the law still didn’t contain provisions indicating how the law was to be enforced, how the courts should interpret it or mandated timelines for compliance, making it functionally worthless and little more than a condescending token to pacify the disabled community.
In April of 1977, approximately 120 people with various disabilities got fed up with that nonsense and took over the Department of Health, Education and Welfare office in San Francisco. The protest was ultimately successful and lasted 28 days. This lesson should absolutely not exclude the various social justice groups that served as allies from outside the disabled community or the disabled people who were self-determined leaders at a time when leadership and disability didn’t go together, including Judy Heumann
The Americans with Disabilities Act would eventually beef up the rights afforded by Section 504, and add to them. As usual it had been a long time coming, having lagged through multiple presidential administrations.
In March of 1990, more than 1,000 souls lost patience and marched from the White House to The Capitol Building in Washington D.C to bring attention to the legislation. Once there, about 60 or so activists put aside their walkers and wheelchairs and began crawling, scooting or climbing any way they could to the top of the Capitol’s 365 steps, in a demonstration that would become known as the Capitol Crawl. President George H.W. Bush enacted the law in July of that year.
Employment - According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, the employment rate (that’s people with jobs) for disabled people was 17.9%, compared to 68.1% for people without a disability. Obviously, low employment leads to high poverty rates. The going rate for SSI, the government assistance program for disabled people, is low enough for recipients to qualify for Medicaid.
Poverty relates to fewer options in healthcare, education, housing and numerous other things that contribute to a person’s quality of life. This also means many in the disabled community must go without life-changing adaptive equipment, much of which Medicaid doesn’t cover.
Knowledge and understanding are the enemies of prejuicedice. Classrooms hold the key to equity, equality and unity.
* A version of this piece was published on The We Spot blog on October 17, 2021.