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Four Disability History Topics That Should Be Taught In Schools

American history is the story of African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ and all marginalized people. 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. Learning the favorable and impressionable parts that made life better. However, not for all of us. When the history of your people isn’t an elective you know you are disenfranchised.

Let’s talk about the other side. It’s important to be aware of the affect on people 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 in higher education, where “identity” and “diversity” have become popular buzzwords. 

The disabled community is certainly a unique identity. For the most part, a community not recognized often. We have our own history and culture. Most of the time our seat at the table is often accessed by the back door and society can’t acknowledge what they don’t know. Therefore, teaching disability history in schools could be extremely valuable.

Here are four topics that would be a great start:

1. Eugenics

Humans seem to be on a perpetual quest to find someone they can declare inferior to themselves. This unfortunate tendency fueled the U.S. Eugenics Movement, one of the darkest marks on disability history in the early 1900s. Eugenics is the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. In other words, creating a perfect race would cure America’s social ills.

For example, eugenicists supported the idea that nonwhites, Jews, immigrants and the disabled must be eliminated. Above all, segregation and forced sterilization got the job done.  All you had to do to be institutionalized was be too stupid, ugly, poor or crippled.

“Imbecile”, “moron”, “feeble-minded” and “idiot” became official labels for people with various cognitive and physical disabilities. Today these words are used as insults,

Over 60,000 people were sterilized against their will from Eugenics practices, according to the Michigan Institute for Health Care Policy and Innovation . Nothing less than the undeniable similarity of Hitler’s tactics in World War II caused Eugenics to fall out of favor.

2. Institutions

The wickedness of institutional life shadows disability history. Thus, hearing personal accounts can help shed light. For example, I recommend the 1972 exposé Willowbrook: The last great disgrace, as well as the many follow-up films on the subject. It’s a tale of abuse, neglect and torture at the hands of doctors, staff and even other unsupervised inmates. 

There were many other institutions across the country. Maybe they weren’t all as bad as Willowbrook? None of them were good. With little exception, institutions were grim places. In other words, a segment of the population kept out of sight in warehouses.

3. Protests: The 504 Sit-In & The Capitol Crawl 

In 1973, Section 504 of the American Rehabilitation Act made disability history as the country’s first civil rights legislation including protections for people with disabilities. As you can imagine, this was not without a fight. The law made no provisions indicating how to enforce it, how the courts should interpret it or mandated timelines for compliance. Even after five years. Thus, making it functionally worthless and little more than a condescending token to pacify the disabled community.  

As a result, nearly 120 disabled people had enough of that nonsense and took over the Department of Health, Education and Welfare office. Because of this, disabled people became self-determined leaders at a time when leadership and disability didn’t go together. The protest was ultimately successful and lasted 28 days. This lesson should never exclude the ally activists from outside the disabled community.

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 1990, more than 1,000 souls marched on The Capitol Building in Washington D.C to bring attention to the legislation. Activists put aside their walkers and wheelchairs. They began crawling, scooting or climbing any way they could to the top of the Capitol’s 365 steps. Because of this, the demonstration would become known as the Capitol Crawl. President George H.W. Bush enacted the law in July of that year. 

4. Employment

According to the US Department of Labor Statistics, the employment rate (that is people with jobs) for disabled people was 17.9%, compared to 68.1% for people without a disability. Low employment leads to high poverty rates. 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.

In conclusion, knowledge and understanding are the enemies of prejudice. Classrooms hold the key to equity, equality and unity. 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of The We Spot, it’s employees, sponsors, or affiliates.

Amanda Frazier Timpson

A Texan transplant to Southern California, Amanda Frazier Timpson could read and write before she could do almost anything else. That love of words lead to degrees in both English and journalism and has evolved into a tool for advocacy, enlightenment, social justice and storytelling. Achieving the full trifecta of disability: congenital, acquired and invisible, has commandeered a significant portion of her life. The reward for such an accomplishment is a commitment to discernment, compassion and empathy. Functioning as a disabled person in a society that was clearly set up without you in mind develops skills that, if you pay close attention, overlap nicely into every other area of life. The foundation of Amanda’s philosophy is that absorbing all possible wisdom from your experiences is key to living a fulfilling life.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Mike

    “When the history of your people isn’t an elective you know you are disenfranchised.”, so true! Well said!

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