Disability History Month: Why "You've Never Had It So Good" is Actually Bullshit
Updated: Feb 11
While the theme for this year's Disability History Month is Leadership, Resistance and Culture, for this post I'm going a slightly different way, aiming for a basic overview of all of disability history.
Which was probably too much to try and cover in one go but here we are anyway. Obviously this doesn't, wouldn't and couldn't cover all nuances within the ENTIRE history of disabled people, but it's important for us to remember.
Also note: this is a pretty Euro/Anglo-centric summary, because that's where I am and where I have a lot of sources for.
This post has been delayed a week because I got ill with every single one of my diseases at the same time. Sorry about that.
People frequently tell me, and other disabled people, that we shouldn't complain so much about our lack of rights and terrible attitudes because "it's better than it's ever been!" These tend to be people whose knowledge of history is that they walked past the history section in the book shop a few months ago. To them, "we've never had it so good." Well, this is my "stuff you" because guess what, that's not what happened.
Theoretically, the primary attitude to the disabled as one of discrimination is actually relatively recent.
For years, history enthusiasts have carried the impression that disabled people, particularly disabled women, would not have managed to exist well in the ancient world. But current knowledge shows that is far from the case. In the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries BC, disabled people seem to have been the majority, there was no word for disability because essentially it may as well have been another word for "people". While disease, illness and congenital disabilities were still turning up in people at random like now, they were also embarking on unprecedented disabled people creation programmes (also known as wars).
Disability was everywhere, from beggars to the gods such as Hephaistos (or Hephaestus), the God of artisans who was clubfooted, lame and disfigured. There are two primary interpretations of why his lameness is not talked about (in a lot encyclopedia entries on him it won't even be mentioned): the first, that it was just incidental, it was so common it wasn't really noticed.
The second is more fun. In the ancient world, like we still do now to an extent, it was thought that if you lost one sense, another would be heightened. Except it didn't stop at what we consider the five senses, but applied to the rest of their body too.
So, maybe he was a successful craftsman and artisan because the detriment in his legs was being compensated by his arms.
Some people did think that if you were blind you couldn't hold high office, so there are ancient Greek stories of a leader being deposed and blinded so they couldn't rise to power again. We know of course that plenty of blind people still were in positions of power, for example the poet Homer. Like a lot of things, it was only a problem if they didn't like you anyway, and it saved them a job when you inevitably were deposed.
The reality is that most people with disabilities, if it was mentioned at all, was only spoken of in passing, like you might describe someone's hair colour. (Oh and by the way, there's no real evidence of an established tradition for leaving sickly/disabled babies to die on a cliff.)
Similarly, we don't have a massive number of sources on disability in the medieval period or Middle Ages, but not because there weren't any or it was shoved out of the way, it was just so normal it was barely worth mentioning. Think about it, injuries and sickness were much more common than without modern medicine or the treatments we have now. There was no reason for it to stop you working or living in the community, you just adapted.
Of course there was an attitude by many that disability or illness was a punishment from God, or occasionally as a gift from God so that you do all your suffering before you die so you can go to heaven, which is convenient I guess? But there is much evidence of disabled people going on pilgrimages, and often doing a nice mutiny when they were being treated badly, echoing a disability rights movement which many think has only existed since the 1970s. But no, trust me, there were loads of us and we were mad as hell, right back to the medieval era.
Those who really were too disabled or sick to support themselves were helped by pseudo-hospitals set up by monks and nuns inside monasteries who saw it as part of their teachings to shelter any strangers who needed it, but when Henry VIII decided Catholicism was shit and dissolved them all, there was a period of rebuilding this kind of facility in a more centralised way, some still supported by the local religious community as well as taxpayers and donations, but away from the churches themselves. Other buildings for the benefit of the disabled were funded by rich people trying to make themselves look good (just like now) rather than by any form of civic duty or religious responsibility, but still, doing a good thing for a bad reason is still a good thing. Kinda.
Arguably this was the start of the "asylum" type accommodation, but people were able to come and go more freely, live in a community and very few people, comparatively, ever lived in them until much later. It came around the same time as the first of a series of Poor Laws, which would punish those deemed "scroungers by choice" (hang on I'm having a bit of de ja vu) but help those who really need it (oh no it's gone now).
But there were plenty of disabled people who became incredibly notable, "Jane the Fool", sometimes known as Jane Foole, was what was known as innocents, or natural fools, and had what we would today deem as learning disabilities, but lived with the Royal Family as an important source of wisdom and entertainment for the court.
But still, even for the "normal" disabled, chronically ill and mentally ill members of the public, they lived at home, married, worked, and were treated by astrological and early psychological treatments, as well as of course religion and traditional remedies.
While London was rebuilding itself after the Great Fire in 1666, a number of irritatingly rich people decided to use the opportunity to show off the wealth of the city, and built a number of very fancy looking new hospitals. The Bethlem Asylum and the Royal Chelsea and Greenwich hospitals were some of the first to benefit, but the Quakers of the area weren't keen on all this at all, and they went on to set up a voluntary asylum movement, which was much gentler than most asylums since, but did increase the number of asylum places, and therefore the normality of disabled people being in them.
During the industrial revolution, the building programme for disabled people sped up significantly. While the landscapes were now taken up by factories, mills and railways, alongside were the high walls of institutions for the disabled, mentally ill and poor.
Here were the workhouses. Early workhouses had just been much kinder, and mainly just housed the local destitute disabled people. These new ones were specifically designed to be horrible, to get rid of all the "shirkers and scroungers" who didn't really need help, by punishing and making life miserable for those who did. Oh there's that de ja vu again.
The public attitude to disabled, chronically ill and mentally ill had gradually shifted towards the position of the UK's austerity era, that giving people help in their own homes would make them lazy and they should make it as hard and as horrible as possible to get any help that no-one for sure would want to be disabled.
Remember that whole "history repeats itself" thing?
Yeah they decided to ignore that.
Of course there were disabled people who weren't living in workhouses, those that were more well off. Special schools and charities were opened and young people in Bristol set up the Guild of the Brave Poor Things, a name that they almost immediately realised they hated.
There are many cases of people injured in their line of work, for example on the railways and in mines, and adapting to their injury to carry on working. In mines, disabled workers were so common that in a lot of cases they weren't really noted down, hence why we know so little about them.
But towards the end of the 19th Century laws came into being that would force mine owners to pay compensation to injured and sick men, and make them responsible for all the injuries. Because of this, they became reluctant to hire back men who had become sick or injured on the job, as they thought it was likely they'd cause another accident or injure themselves again. However this did lead to sometimes industry specific rest homes to recover from injuries, and in some cases rehabilitate the patients for work.
However the precedent had been set for excluding the disabled and chronically ill from the workplace, home and community, in a way that most people are still today trying to fight back against.
Through the late 20th Century, there was a rise in disabled activism. People got sick of being pitied and it was still legal to discriminate against a disabled person in all areas of life until 1995. Even with the creation of the Disability Discrimination Act, it still didn't give access to transport and other rights. According to many members of the Direct Action Network which campaigned for these changes, all the Disability Discrimation Act really did was show that the government agreed that disabled people are discriminated against.
It's a mixed picture, but despite the idea of disability being something to be pitied (which I feel I should point out is not the case now), for most it was mundane, a boring, everyday thing. While the increase of hospitals and homes to care for disabled people helped people to see disabled people as needing care away from the community, it was really the fall of crafting jobs and the increase of automated, repetitive jobs in the industrial revolution that suddenly shifted this view, where productivity and output became the most important thing, and if it fell, the disabled became the first on the chopping pile.