Societies have long sought to explain disability. Historically, the two most prevalent viewpoints—that disability is either a moral condition (either special or frightening) or a medical condition (a malady to be cured by experts)—have had a profound and mostly negative impact on the lives of people with disabilities. Only recently has a third view of disability emerged: that people with disabilities are regular people, a minority group with the same civil rights as others.
In this first of a three-part series, we will look at the moral view of disability, where it comes from, how it affects the lives of people with disabilities today, and what we can do about it.
Have you ever been called special? Or perhaps you=ve overheard one teenager say to another teenager, Don=t be so retarded or that=s lame.@ These comments reveal a fairly widespread view of disability—the moral view of disability. People with this viewpoint talk about disability like it=s either some sugar-coated sweetness or it=s bad. These attitudes are a problem for people with disabilities, because they make it hard to be treated as a regular person. Let=s take a closer look at this ancient, harmful attitude.
What is the Moral View of Disability?
The moral view of disability is the false idea that people with disabilities are morally different from others. We are prejudged in one of two ways: as either especially good or especially bad because of a disability. Under this moral view, we are not allowed to be regular people. Instead, we are labeled, as special angels, innocent and worthy of charity, or labeled as frightening, evil and worthy of ridicule. Both moral stereotypes (good and bad) have led to problems for people with disabilities.
The history of Disability is Bad
The idea that disability is sinful has been around for thousands of years. Like many today, ancient people thought “perfect@ bodies were a sign of goodness, or godliness. Logically, then, Aimperfect@ people were thought to be evil. This was God=s punishment for sins. Consider this passage from the Bible. AAs he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?@ (John 9:1-2). In the 1500s, Protestant reformer Martin Luther said that [children with severe disabilities are] AY.a mass of flesh with no soulY.The Devil sits in such changelings where their souls should have been.@
More recently it has been movies, books and language that tell us Adisability is bad.@ Notice how often villains and monsters are made to look like people with disabilities: Goliath, Frankenstein, Dr. Strangelove, Mr. Hyde, the Mountain Troll from Harry Potter, Captain Hook. Even our language makes disability into something bad. Words that describe a disability (idiot, moron, fool, retard, blind and lame) usually end up meaning Abad.@
Because we were so often considered evil and dangerous, people with disabilities have faced segregation throughout history. We=ve often been kept hidden away in homes. Perhaps our families were ashamed or feared violence. When not at home, people with disabilities have been grouped together in leper colonies, asylums, Ahospitals,@ and large institutions, with abuse common in all settings. Historically, public ridicule has been an acceptable behavior toward people with disabilities. From the professional fools of ancient times to circus Afreak shows,@ people with disabilities have been displayed for the entertainment of others. In the 1500s, many European villages had a AFool=s Cage,@ where people with various disabilities were imprisoned in full view for public scrutiny and heckling.
Inevitably, fear of Aevil@ has led to violence toward people with disabilities. In some cities of ancient Greece, it was a law that a baby with a disability should be killed through exposure (abandoning it in the woods). In Nazi Germany, the first people killed by Hitler=s ethnic Apurification@ program were people with disabilities— more than 200,000 of us. Throughout the 19th and 20th century, state-run institutions in the US and Europe were often brutal and abusive. They compiled a tragic record of mistreatment of people with disabilities, including forced sterilizations, beatings, neglect, and abandonment.
The history of ADisability is Special@
Not everyone in the ancient world thought disability was evil. There were a few who challenged this faulty belief. One of these people was Jesus (4 BC-29 AD). He rejected the notion that disability is caused by sin. Instead he advocated compassion and service to the powerless and outcasts. The early Christian Church accepted Jesus= call, providing services for people with disabilities. Rather than sinful, people with disabilities now came to be stereotyped in the opposite way, as Aholy innocents,@ as special souls worthy of charity. And this charity worked two ways: it helped the people with disabilities have better lives and helped the helpers get to heaven (special helpers).
This idea that ADisability is Special@ is of course everywhere today. Many religious groups continue to provide services to people with disabilities. On a broader level, the term Aspecial@ is now practically a synonym for Adisability.@
Let=s look now at how the Adisability is special@ viewpoint affects people with disabilities today. For sure, this attitude motivates many individuals and groups to provide services. Over the years, countless charity programs have emerged to address problems of abuse, neglect, abandonment, unemployment, and poverty.
Unfortunately, the Aspecial@ stereotype undermines the disability right movement… First, people with disabilities are denied the right of personhood. We are not seen as regular people, but as special. Second, this attitude promotes segregation, because special people are treated separately. Consider such often well meaning structures such as special education classes, Aspecial@ weeks at summer camps, Special Olympics, sheltered workshops and even group homes: all these programs segregate people (because of specialness). Finally, this attitude places control in the hands of others. As recipients of charity, people with disabilities have seldom been empowered to decide things for ourselves. Too often, service providers have remained in control.
How Can We Respond to the Moral View of Disability?
Although these moral viewpoints are everywhere, we can break free of their negative power. First, we need to learn to notice them in our lives. Then we can openly discuss these stereotypes, challenging our friends and allies to join us in exposing these harmful myths. As we work together, we can make a difference.
[Groups interested in training materials on the moral view of disability as related to people with developmental disabilities may contact Advocating Change Together and ask about the workshop ASaints, Sinners, and Special People: Understanding the Moral View of Disability.@]