Disability History, Part 3

Aktion T4 and the Holocaust

Today’s post is near and dear to my heart. It is a great example of the disabled community being silenced as almost no one has been taught about the Aktion T4 program. The T4 program was a political mass murder campaign by involuntary euthanasia, which ended up serving as the precursor to the Holocaust. The history that I’ve compiled for this week is, and should be, shocking. As such, I feel that I need to put a warning here that this post will talk about some of the horrendous things that occurred before and during WWII which include: mass murder, eugenics, abortion, forced sterilization, assisted suicide, and the torture of children. I encourage readers to decide for themselves if they would like to engage in this material.

The early 1900s was a dark time for those with disabilities. In addition to facing discrimination in employment, education, architecture, it was also the age of eugenics. This meant that scientists and politicians were trying to shape the human race by eliminating undesirable characteristics. Those with disabilities were especially targeted. In America, new laws passed such as the “ugly laws” which prohibited the appearance of people who were “diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object (1).” Another example is sterilization laws, which allowed disabled people to be sterilized against their consent. America was not the only country to do this. Sterilization laws were also in effect all over Europe. In the Deaf community, oralism (communicating by voice rather than by sign language) was enforced. Deaf teachers were fired while deaf students were punished if they signed. American Sign Language was nearly wiped out of existence. Alexander Graham Bell, largely known for creating the first telephone, used his fame to push for laws that would prohibit Deaf people from marrying or having children.

The purpose behind these laws was to further segregate disabled people from non-disabled people. In addition, they pushed disabled people to fit into the status quo. This discrimination and segregation—particularly the sterilization laws—inspired scientists and political leaders in Germany, who were also heavily discussing Darwin’s ideas of natural selection and survival of the fittest.

In support of these ideas, the Nazi party began producing propaganda that blamed Germany’s social and economic problems on people with disabilities. Anyone who didn’t contribute to the well-being of the society was considered a burden to the point they were called “lives unworthy of living (2).” After the propaganda, came action.

In 1933 the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring” was passed and lead to forced sterilization of people carrying hereditary defects, which was anything from mental illness to deformations to sensory disabilities such as deafness or blindness to biracial children. Many who were sterilized were children, who often did not know what the operation meant until years later. You can hear a few of these victims tell the story in their own words here.

After this, more action came with the registration of disabilities. Political leaders wanted to know how many people with disabilities were in nursing homes, being born in hospitals, and living at home. It became required for doctors, midwives, and nurses to report this information. Once that information was gathered, Aktion Tiergartenstrasse 4 (T4) began. In a nutshell, the T4 program was a campaign of mass murder of people with disabilities. It began in 1939 with the quiet killing of infants and children under the age of 3 who were suspected of having a hereditary disability. Parents did not have a say in their child’s future. If they fought the decision of the doctors, their baby was taken away.

When WWII broke out, T4 expanded to older children, adults, and the elderly with disabilities. Disabled people were being trafficked to special “institutions” and “special sections” where it was believed that they would receive better treatment. In reality, they were being sent to various places to be slaughtered. These were the first instances of mass murder in Germany and, of course, needed to be undertaken secretly. This meant there was a need to develop new technology to kill several people at a time and provide a way to efficiently dispose of the bodies. That’s how gas chambers were invented and why furnaces became the top method of disposing of bodies.

The Nazi party kept T4 secret. Most parents who dropped their children or family members off at these institutions didn’t know they were delivering them to the arms of death. While most adults had the mercy of being killed quickly, for children it was a different story. Children were often locked in rooms and either starved or beaten until dead. Those with mental illnesses were sometimes kept for experiments. One particular doctor, Heinrich Gross, would preserve the brains of disabled children in jars for further studies. He is credited with killing more children than any other doctor under the T4 program and has never been formally charged for these crimes.

I am sad to say that Gross’s victims were not laid to rest until April 28, 2002. Gross kept their brains as part of his collection of study and research, continuing to dissect their brains as late as 1998. (3)

After the success of the T4 program, the Nazi party turned to target Jews, Blacks, Transgender, Homosexuals, interracial couples, and many others. With the new technology developed under the T4 program, they had the means to do mass exterminations the likes of which had never been seen before.

T4 continued through the war until Germany surrendered to Allied powers on May 7, 1945. The last murder of the program took place on May 29, 1945. It was a boy named Richard Jeene who was four years old and classified as a “feebleminded idiot” (4). While the exact number of people who were killed under T4 isn’t known, estimations range from 200,000 to 360,000 (5).

Had the T4 program been prevented or failed, it is likely the Holocaust would never have come to past. From this history, we can see how when one group successfully justifies the extermination or discrimination of another group, there will always be another group to target. Because the disabled community is one of the most invisible and oppressed minorities on the planet, it is not uncommon for them to be the first target.

Unfortunately, discussions about disabilities and eugenics continue to this day. As an example, many believe that disabilities need to be cured or eradicated. Abortion laws around the world often allow fetuses who have been diagnosed with disabilities to be terminated at much later dates than allowed for a non-disabled fetus. This assumes that children with disabilities will have a lower quality of life or be too much of a burden. Another example, some groups are pushing for assisted suicide for disabled people, which would allow someone with a disability to legally seek out voluntary euthanasia. This arises from assumptions that people with disabilities are so miserable that they want to die. This particular issue strikes a personal nerve because I spent most of my childhood wishing I was dead. And then I grew up and I learned about disabilities and the barriers in place that made me feel that way. I developed pride in myself and my disability. I overcome those feelings and now I can’t imagine wanting to die. Assisted suicide is not an answer until we first break down the barriers that prevent disabled people from being fully integrated into society.

Woman walking along the Berlin Wall

A third example is found in efforts of trying to cure disabilities similarly has a mindset that disability makes a person less useful. Whereas focusing on accessibility and building better technology for disabled people focuses on breaking down barriers. If disabilities are completely eradicated we stand to lose so much diversity and innovation. Instead of assuming that disabilities need to be wiped out or that they are a burden, maybe society should look at the barriers that keep people with disabilities from contributing. Instead of saying “people with disabilities are burdens” try saying “what barriers prevent people with disabilities from contributing to society? How can we challenge or remove these barriers?”

One of the reasons I started this blog was to combat the persistent negative views surrounding disabilities. Disabled people are often seen for their disability rather than as people, but we are people first, foremost, and forever. As a nation and as a global village, we are entering into a new age. As I’ve mentioned before, I am part of the first generation of the disabled community, worldwide, to grow up with civil rights. This means that disabled people are no longer segregated from non-disabled people and we are in the process of becoming a more visible community. Perhaps a better way to explain this is with a quote from Judy Heumann’s book.

“We were a people who were generally invisible in the daily life of society. I mean, think about it. If you didn’t see us in school, because we weren’t allowed in; or in your place of employment, either because we couldn’t physically access it or because we couldn’t get hired; or on your form of public transportation, because buses and trains weren’t accessible; or in restaurants or theaters, for the same reason—then where in your everyday life would you have seen us?”

Being Heumann, Page 103

When I first learned about the T4 program a couple of years ago, I felt like I had been betrayed. Why hadn’t I been taught this in school? Why wasn’t everyone taught about it? We learn about the Holocaust in detail, but nothing about how it came to be. It seemed like such an important detail to leave out. Isn’t that why we learn history? So we recognize the signs if it starts happening again? The T4 program assumed that life can be measured by usefulness while further assuming only able-bodied persons were useful, a stereotype that persists today. I have to wonder if disabilities and eugenics would still be under discussion if more people were educated about T4. Things like selective abortion are not too far off of the beginnings of the T4 program. It is discrimination. It is a matter of life and death. It is important to understand and recognize these things before they escalate into something bigger. Something more terrible.

Something that should never be silenced.

References

  1. Schweik, Susan M, and Robert A Wilson. “Ugly Laws.” The Eugenics Archives, 5 Feb. 2015, eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/tree/54d39e27f8a0ea4706000009.
  2. Cook, Ian. “The Holocaust and Disabled People: FAQ – Frequently-Asked Questions.” Ouch!, BBC, 17 Oct. 2008, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/fact/the_holocaust_and_disabled_people_faq_frequently_asked_questions.shtml.
  3. Erlanger, Steven. “Vienna Buries Child Victims Of the Nazis.” The New York Times, 29 Apr. 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/29/world/vienna-buries-child-victims-of-the-nazis.html.
  4. Krausz, Tibor. “You Were Born to Die for Germany.” Tibor Krausz, The Jerusalem Report, 28 Nov. 2005, tiborkrausz.com/html/book_review/You_were_born_to_die_for_germany.html.tiborkrausz.com/html/book_review/You_were_born_to_die_for_germany.html.
  5. Berenbaum, Michael. “T4 Program.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Feb. 2001, http://www.britannica.com/event/T4-Program.

Book Report: Disability Visibility by Alice Wong

Genre: Adult Nonfiction
Published June 30, 2020

Brief Summary
Disability Visibility is a short story anthology by people with disabilities, published a few months before the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act which established civil rights for those people disabilities. It is a celebration of what it means to be disabled and does not shy away from difficult topics. It gives a glimpse of the rich complexity of what it means to be disabled. It also provides a huge list of works by people with disabilities for further reading including podcasts, blogs, essays, videos, websites, poetry, other anthologies, fiction, nonfiction, and more.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Hello Listen Up readers! Welcome to another book report! In last week’s article I talked about the disabled identity and what it means to be disabled. To go along with that, today I will be talking about Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong. This is a powerful book of stories by people with disabilities about what it means to be disabled. When I started reading, I had a brand new highlighter in hand. By the time I finished the book, my highlighter was dead. There is not a single page of my copy without highlighting, underlining, or writing in the margins.

“To my younger self and all the disabled kids today
who can’t imagine their futures.
The world is ours, and this is for all of us.”

Alice Wong, Dedication of Disability Visibility

It was difficult to narrow down all the stories to a selected few I could talk about in a single blog post. This book does not shy away from difficult topics such as eugenics, infanticide, abortion, assault, erasure, language deprivation, among others. Content notes are provided at the beginning of each story so that readers can choose whether or not they want to read the story.

One of my favorite stories in this collection, “Unspeakable Conversations” by Harriet McBryde Johnson, is also one of the most powerful. It is the first story in Disability Visibility for a good reason, it changes the reader’s perspective toward disabilities. The story follows Johnson, a disability rights lawyer, as she participated in a debate with Professor Peter Singer, a popular modern philosopher who argues for infanticide and assisted suicide of people with disabilities. I could not imagine being put in a position where I have to argue for the right to exist as a deaf person. As Johnson says, “a participant in a discussion that would not occur in a just world” (17).

Harriet McBryde Johnson

“Preferences based on race are unreasonable. Preferences based on ability are not. Why? To Singer, it’s pretty simple: disability makes a person ‘worse off.’

“Are we worse off’? I don’t think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.”

Harriet McBryde Johnson (10-11)

Johnson went to the debate to provide a different perspective and hope that she could show the students who attended the debate that people with disabilities were people just like them. But Johnson also faced backlash from the disabled community. Some were upset that she agreed to do the debate at all, as being seen with Professor Singer could be interpreted as endorsing his ideas of genocide. Disabilities get so little representation, thus every representation is important and powerful so that is why some people are so critical of Johnson’s actions.

Johnson’s story shines a light on the modern debates taking place today. It is a real question whether or not people with disabilities will be allowed to continue existing in the future. If my deafness was detected before I was born, would my life have been nothing but a statistic? Would I have been “put out of my misery” before I had the chance to live a fulfilling life? Yes, living with a disability means living in a world that doesn’t want me. But living with a disability doesn’t automatically mean that I cannot live a wonderful, fulfilling life and positively impact and contribute to the world.

The second story, “How to Make a Paper Crane from Rage” by Elsa Sjunneson is a story about rage, something that is near and dear to my heart. When I was a teenager, I had a problem with managing my anger. My parents forced me to go to a therapy place near our house. I made little progress. Within a year and a half, I had already been passed through three different therapists. If anything, I got better at hiding my emotions and dodging questions I didn’t want to answer. My fourth therapist, however, had an advantage the others didn’t. She had previously worked with deaf kids like myself.

I remember my first meeting with her and the awkward silence as she flipped through the pages of my file, reading about all my shortcomings and flaws from past therapists who gave up on me and passed me to the next person. At last, she shut the file and tossed it aside.

“You’re fine.” She said.

“What?” I was confused.

“You’re fine. You have every right to be angry.”

I had never in my life been permitted to be angry. It was so profound and so unexpected that I began to cry.

She explaining that anger was a normal part of being disabled. How the world is unfair to us and that the constant fighting to be heard and to be seen builds up. Every deaf person she had ever met had “anger management issues” but in reality, we had every right to be angry. She continued on and on, putting things into words I had always known but couldn’t explain. How was it that an able-bodied stranger knew more about being deaf than I did? She went so far as to encourage me to be angry.

“There’s something horrifying about realizing people don’t see you as an adult when you are in fact an adult. There’s something angering about it, too, that people assume based on the kind of body that you live in, or the sort of marginalization you carry within yourself that you can be an adult only if someone helps you.”

Elsa Sjunneson (135)

Getting that permission to be angry, to be told that it was okay to be angry and that I should be angry, changed me. I started getting better at managing my anger because I understood where it was coming from. In addition, my therapist got me involved in a local deaf basketball team. It was a life-changing experience for me because it was the first time I ever got to be surrounded by people like myself.

This rage is what “How to Make a Paper Crane from Rage” is about. Rage is common among those with disabilities. I would say it is a part of the disabled identity. We are angry at the social discrimination that we face daily. We are an angry people because society expects so little from someone with a disability that we aren’t expected to achieve anything. We are angry because we are kept isolated. This story puts so many aspects of this rage into words.

But rage also gives us power. Rage helps us push back against barriers and provides fuels our fight for a better world. It helps us to be resilient and encourages creativity. While I no longer struggled with my anger in the ways that I used to, I found new ways to use it. This blog, for example, rises from a place of personal rage over the lack of representation in literature and the lack of discussion about disabilities in the classroom. In other words, when a person has a disability it is not only important to be angry, but a necessity.

“I burn brightly with my rage and I show it to the world when it suits me, when it’s appropriate. When the world needs to know I am angry. . . . my rage isn’t a fire stoked by those who would harm me—it’s a fire fed by social discrimination, by a society not built to sustain me. . . . a disabled person has a right to be angry, not just at the specific blockade in their way but at a society that creates those blockades.”

Elsa Sjunneson (138)

The last story I have time to talk about is “Why My Novel is Dedicated to My Disabled Friend Maddy” by A. H. Reaume, who discusses many of the barriers in publishing and writing that disabled writers face. It is common knowledge that there is a severe lack of disabled voices in the world of literature, despite the fact that more than a quarter of the population of America identifies as being disabled. Why is it that these voices are not being recognized?

Reaume was finding it difficult to finish her book as her disability meant staring at a computer screen took all mental willpower and focus. If she printed out a manuscript and edited it, she then had difficulty in switching back and forth from the paper to the screen. It seemed impossible to finish her book. Then she met Maddy, who was also recovering from a brain injury and needed some work. The partnership that stemmed between the two allowed Reaume to complete her book, highlighting an important point; many disabled writers don’t have the assistance they need to physically finish a book on their own. “Why My Novel is Dedicated to My Disabled Friend Maddy” talks about the need for interdependence and further explains why there aren’t more books by people with disabilities being published.

“Independence is a fairy tale that late capitalism tells in order to shift the responsibility for care and support from community and state to individuals and families. But not everyone has the personal capacity, and not everyone has family support. And the stories we tell about bootstraps tell us that it’s the fault of an individual if they don’t thrive. They’re just not trying hard enough.

“The myth of independence also shapes what literature looks like and what kind of writing is valued. . . The story of disabled success has never been a story about one solitary disabled person overcoming limitations—despite the fact that’s the narrative we so often read in the media.”

A. H. Reaume (155-157)

Publishers often refuse works by those with disabilities because they think that disabilities are unrelatable so that the book won’t sell. Or they think the market is too small for stories about disabilities. In addition, works by disabled authors may have more rough edges as in the case of Reaume. This also causes editors move on because they aren’t willing to put in the extra work required. But the fact remains that there need more stories told by disabled voices. Our stories are relatable and they are important.

There are so many more wonderful and powerful stories in Disability Visibility. I almost decided to make this a two-part blog post. I didn’t get a chance to touch on the intersectionality that is also part of the collection. There are stories about being black and disabled, being queer and disabled, how religious practices can cause conflict with a disability, and the subject of heritage. The three stories I have discussed are only a scratch on the surface of all Disability Visibility has to offer. This collection shines a light on the disabled experience that the media doesn’t portray or get discussed in classrooms. So many of these stories moved me to tears as I found a part of myself reflected on every single page. I have never heard so many different disabled voices in a single place.

Utah Eagles of the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind
I am number 42, top left and sitting behind Coach

It reminded me of the days on my deaf basketball team when I was surrounded by others like myself. My team was able to fly to Washington state for the West Regional Basketball Championship to compete with other deaf teams from across the western United States. It was amazing. The houses we stayed in had lights that would flicker when someone rang the doorbell. The crowds would stomp their feet so hard when someone made a basket, the court floor felt like it was a trampoline. Some teams had drums too that they would bang so loud, I was forced to turn my hearing aids off. And everywhere I went, there were deaf people too. All the restaurants nearby were used to communicating with deaf people and there was no trouble in communicating our orders. It was as wonderful as it was overwhelming. I spent the whole first day in a daze of culture shock.

That’s the experience I had while reading Disability Visibility. I still feel that I have so much more to learn about myself and my disability, things that I never had the chance to learn in school or were missing in books. Disability Visibility showcases so much about what the disabled identity and the disabled experience is. It talks about so many things that made me angry, sad, and happy. It was an empowering read. This is one book that I highly encourage readers to add to their reading lists, because unlike most media, this portrays the reality about what it means to be disabled.

Is Disability Visibility part of your reading list? Is there another story about a person or character with a disability that you love? Leave a like or a comment and let me know!