Disability History, Part 1

Understanding the word “Disability” and where it comes from

Historical silencing is a term that refers to the dominating narratives that reinforce the power of dominant groups in a way that the contributions of lower-powered groups are ignored and silenced. As the common saying goes, “history is written by the victors.” Historical silencing shows up in ways like how most Americans can name Christopher Columbus as the man who “discovered” the Americas, but they cannot name the tribes of people who were here first. Another example of historical silencing exists in how the contributions of women have been ignored for centuries and have only recently begun to come to light. There is perhaps no group that has experienced more historical silencing than the disabled community.

Disability history may not seem like an important subject to study, but the truth is that the concept of disabilities has shaped the world in more ways than it is possible to name. For example, disability drives human invention. The first telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell as a stepping stone in trying to create a hearing aid. Texting was engineered for deaf people but quickly became popular among everyone. But disability has also inspired wars. Like in the case of Adolf Hitler, who killed more than 275,000 people with disabilities in 1939. It was this act that allowed him to expand his agenda to the murder of millions of Jews.

But the most important point about understanding disability history is that it ties into the history of so many other forms of discrimination. Ableism, the discrimination based on ability, is the root of sexism, genderism, ageism, and racism. I talked about this idea a little in Defining Disabilities, Part 1. Women were once considered physically and mentally inferior to men. Similarly, people of color were seen as intellectually disabled but physically superior. This allowed slavers to say that slavery was a kindness by providing work, shelter, and food for the “savages.” While a lot of progress has been made, there are still people who believe these groups are mentally or physically inferior. In other words, these groups are seen as disabled because of certain factors such as skin color or body type. If we, as a nation, wish to progress past discrimination based on race, religion, gender, and age, we must first overcome discrimination based on ability.

I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about disability history. Three years ago, I didn’t know it was even a thing until after I took a critical literary studies class which introduced me to disability studies. From there I slowly began to learn more and more disabilities. I started learning about the Disability Rights Movement for the first time. I read about the protests. I read about the people who had come before me and fought for me to have the life I have today. It’s been a very personal and emotional journey in discovering my heritage. This is a classic case of historical silencing because there are so few that know this subject and there is no telling how much history is missing. While I may know but a scratch on the surface, I know more than the average person and I’m continuing to learn each day.

The beginning of disability history begins with a single word, both literally and metaphorically. As language is a reflection of the values and perspective within culture, understanding the origins of “disability” provides insight on when the divide between “us” and “them” begins. The word came about in the 1570s, literally meaning “incapacity in the eyes of the law.” The 1500s was also a time of exploration when European countries were establishing colonies around the world. It was no coincidence that “disability” arose from this period.

To give some background on this area, colonialism brought forth a new age as cultures and people were able to interact in ways that were previously impossible. There was a new need to study other cultures and to understand them in order to build trade relations and communicate. That’s when the science of anthropology began. Today anthropology is a important field of study, but it had dark origins.

Colonialism, in a nutshell, was about exploiting other people, their land, and their resources. Anthropology was used to justify taking over these lands. For example, the leading anthropological theory of this period was unilinear cultural evolution, or that all societies and cultures develop on the same pathway. This path had a series of stages from “savagery” to “barbarianism” and finally, to “civilized.” Of course, the Europeans thought of themselves as being at the top of the scale. Using anthropology, they rationalized that they were doing a service by conquering other people. As the highest evolved form of humanity, God wanted the Europeans to take advantage of these opportunities or so they believed. Victims of colonialism were forced to destroy their lands to grow cash crops and enact European customs and ideals. This is how people started being classified based on their skin, abilities, and way of life.

Outside of the European expansion, finding a language with a word that meant “disability” is rare. This does not mean other cultures didn’t have persons with disabilities, but rather that these cultures acknowledged the differences and accepted them without a second thought. For example, Native American tribes did not have a word meaning “disability.” Part of their beliefs centers on the idea that each individual was born to fulfill a specific purpose. So if a child was born with a mental or physical disability, but found they were an excellent water carrier, then that is what the Gods meant for them to do. The child was not seen or labeled as disabled.

This example is from A Disability History of the United States by Kim E. Nielson. Books on disability history are rare and I was fortunate enough to read this while taking a class on anthropological theories. This book has taught me more about disability history than any other source to date. It shows how much of history has been shaped by disabilities but has been silenced.

Understanding the origin of the word “disability” and that it is not, in fact, a common term we can conclude that it was used to classify people in order to establish a hierarchy. In the coming weeks, I will be talking about different events and impacts that disabilities have had in the past and continue to impact us today. I will also talk about events that I have been lucky enough to witness within my lifetime.

Historical silencing is alarming, appalling, and daunting. In the midst of silence, people don’t know what or how much is missing or lost. It is my hope that this blog series will help shine a light for teachers on how important disability history is to include in the classroom and to help writers learn more about what sort of circumstances cause disability, how it impacts society, and provide further insight into the disabled identity.

Did you enjoy this blog post? If so, leave a like or comment below! In addition, if there is a topic you would like to see covered in a future blog post, you can send me a message on the contact page.

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