People with disabilities have always been a part of society, but they were not always accepted and looked after like we do now. Social constructs and ways of thinking have framed the views of society and therefore how people with disabilities were treated. These constructs and ideas of what disability is still frame our society and thinking today.

Reading about the history of learning disabilities, it is interesting – and quite shocking really – to learn about the treatment people with disabilities, either mental or physical, have been given through the centuries.

Babylonians would look at babies born with disabilities as good predictors of the future; Romans would drown disabled babies; Greeks were the first ones to talk about eugenics, they also thought that those born deaf couldn’t think rationally. In Old Testament times, disability was linked to sin, nevertheless those born with disabilities were protected and people were taught to treat them kindly. In the New Testament, it became a source of miracles when Jesus healed the disabled.

Aztecs and Europeans (1100s) would display the disabled in zoos. In the 1300s, disabled people in England depended on charity for their survival. Those suffering with mental health were labelled “lunatics” and confined to facilities and seen as entertainment for visitors.

In the 1400s, the Church allows the murder of those with disabilities, and a few years later witch hunts begin, causing the death of many women who were disabled or struggling with mental health problems. 

In the 1800s, disability is portrayed as weak and pathetic in works like A Christmas Carol (Tiny Tim), and there is also an attempt to institutionalise disabled children for life. The 1900s sees eugenics and institutionalisation to be the norm. The Mental Deficiency Act categorises those with learning and mental health issues as idiots, imbeciles, and more. Unmarried mothers were included in this category. In 1935 and throughout the second world war, euthanasia of disabled people, and “mercy killings” ordered by Hitler, were widespread. 

In the 1960s, a soap character becomes a wheelchair user, and in 1992, a disabled actor stars in a soap opera on the BBC. In 2012, Paralympic Games are held in the UK.

Looking back to what has been the treatment of people with disabilities through the ages, even in the early 1900s, it is clear to see that difference has always been stigmatised in societies far and wide. Not only stigmatised, sometimes even demonised!

There are many aspects of the treatment of those with disabilities that are shameful to think about, and without wanting to justify them, they were different times and knowledge wasn’t what it is now.

It is very unfortunate for those with disabilities, the atrocious things they had to deal with, and unfortunately it seems like we have repeated ill treatment even in recent decades.

In addition, and I don’t want to get political about this, but it is a fact, that those with disabilities are seeing major cuts to the services and benefits they receive, which means that they have less access to those things that they have a right to access – activities in the community, services, and general things that those of us without disabilities might take for granted.

I work with people with disabilities, and when out in the community, I can still see that stigma and stereotyping is still around. Of course, it is much less than in past centuries, and there is more information available and more understanding of behaviours and the different visible and invisible disabilities out there.

More compassion, information and understanding will make a difference in the lives of those with disabilities, and having equal access to everything that everyone else has access to will enrich the lives and the communities where they live.

After reading this article, I leave you with the following questions:

Do you think we have moved forward in regard to how we treat and think about people with disabilities?

How can we add on to the work that’s brought us to where we are today?

What can you do to enrich your life, your community and the life of someone with disabilities?