Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Digging Up Disability History

Elizabeth Picciuto, The Daily Beast - July 22, 2014
"The moral arc of the universe may indeed bend toward justice, in disability as in race, gender, and class—but that arc doesn’t flow smoothly: It contains many hills and valleys.”
I have seen several versions of this story about the skeleton of a person with Down Syndrome, dated to the 5th or 6th century A.D. Most of the references present as established fact the idea that because the child was buried the same way, with the same burial rites as others in her clan, it shows that people with Down Syndrome were fully integrated, valued members of their communities, even in the “Dark Ages”. Even though this article acknowledges how little we really know about ancient attitudes towards disabilities from such sparse evidence, I still find this new evidence tantalizing.

book cover of History Of The World, Updated, by J. M. Roberts
A few years ago, one of the first audiobooks I listened to was History Of The World, Updated, by J. M. Roberts. In one of the early chapters, Roberts mentions that archeologists had found the prehistoric remains of a man who appeared to have had a physical impairment. Yet, he also appeared to have died fairly old. Roberts speculates that the man probably had to be sustained by his clan, and indeed, this man, too, seemed to have been buried surrounded by gathered flowers and nick-nacks … indicating that the people of that age were more than just beasts that looked human. They were, just maybe, compassionate and sophisticated in their understanding of human value.

photo of a marble bust of Roman Emperor ClaudiusAt the other end of the historical scale, the article refers to the fact that in the 1800s, people with disabilities were quite often integrated into their communities, and only separated and institutionalized later, during the “Progressive Era”. In fact, how the well-meaning “progressives" of the early 20th century dealt with disability is an important reminder of how good people throughout history often get things wrong … sometimes terribly wrong … and confuse altruism and charity, with prejudice and condescension.

Were institutions and "state schools" for disabled people created to protect us from society's harshness and cruelty? Or, were they really meant to get us out of the way, out from under foot, so to speak. Probably both.

Finally, I think again of my favorite disabled person from history, the Roman Emperor Claudius, who historians believe had cerebral palsy and epilepsy. We will probably never know exactly how extensive his disabilities were, or the degree to which he was stigmatized. Yet, once again the shreds of evidence are tantalizing.

I would like to know more about disability in ancient and prehistoric times. Does anyone know of any other studies, articles, or books on the subject?

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