Persecution of the Handicap



In the early days it was superstition or religion that caused people to believe that people with disabilities were being punished for their sins. As a result, some cultures treated people with disabilities harshly by banishing, ridiculing, and even killing them. In fact, when Europeans settled North America, the charter excluded people with disabilities based on the assumption that they would be a drain on society.

Samuel Gridley Howe started to share some revolutionary ideas starting in 1866. He began arguing that people with disabilities should not be forced to live apart from people without disabilities. This meant allowing children with disabilities the right to attend normal schools.

Mr. Howe spent much of his career helping people with disabilities overcome obstacles. In fact, in 1801 he became the leading spokesman for people with physical and mental disabilities. He also contended that the greatest obstacle to helping a person with disabilities was a well-meaning relatives. This idea was counter to what all the other professionals were teaching. Most leading health professionals were promoting the idea of taking care of people with disabilities.

In 1960 sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a book entitled Stigma: notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. In this book Goffman highlighted the abuse of his time, which included treating people with disabilities with disrespect and disapproval or simply ignored. For example, someone who was losing their site was shouted at as if they were going deaf, too. Or, someone in a wheelchair was treated as if they had lost the ability to think. One lady in a wheelchair reminisced sitting in a restaurant waiting to be served as the staff purposely ignored her and then asked her mother basic questions like, "Is it ok if she gets what she requested".

Between 1917 and 1945 the United States was involved in two wars that added almost 900,000 people with disabilities. These wounded soldiers demanded more than just a paycheck after finding their freedoms blocked by discrimination. Through heavy lobbying Congress passed the Disabled Veterans' Rehabilitation Act of 1943. In 1944 Congress passed a GI Bill of Rights that gave veterans with disabilites free college tuition, monthly living allowances and some other benefits. Unfortunately, there was still barriers that kept people like Kenneth Sawtelle who had lost both legs from attending college. Kenneth signed up for classes at a local college only be met by a long staircase that prevented him from attending college and achieving his dreams. At this point, a handicap door would have seemed absurd.

It was not until 1964 that the first major piece of legislation was passed that created a framework for dealing with discrimination cases. It is important to note that this law did not address the rights of people with disabilities.