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Saturday, February 06, 2016


I've just started a course on Special Education, and the first thing one learns is that humans have been horrible. Well, we all know that, but we learn that there are different levels of man's inhumanity to man. Of course there are wars over things like land, whose God is real, and oil, and of course there is discrimination over race, gender, social class, religion, and sexual orientation. But we shouldn't forget the horrendous treatment over the centuries of the disabled and mentally ill.

The first thing I read in my study is that prior to 1700, anyone with a disability was thought to be possessed by Satan. Such were the limits of science that hands were thrown up and exclamations were made that it must be the devil's work. I suppose we can't condemn those people too much, as it was not in their imaginations to believe that disabilities, whether they be mental or physical, were the result of medical problems and not spiritual ones. But these believes led to the kind of practices that put lumps in our throats--it was standard procedure to kill infants with obvious disabilities or deformities, all the way up into the 20th century.

There were hospitals for those with mental disorders in India going back to before Christ, but they probably weren't happy places. Indeed, the image of the "lunatic asylum" is one that ranks right up there with the haunted house for horror movie sites. New Jersey, where I lived for quite a few years, is littered with abandoned asylums, and I remember an MTV series where reality-show contestants were forced to spend the night in one (I remember one of their tasks was to be enclosed in a body drawer in the morgue).

Ignorance and fear drove the treatment of the mentally ill, and is perhaps most embodied by Bethlem Royal Hospital, or, as it became known, Bedlam. It was founded in 1247, and still exists today as a modern psychiatric facility, but it's legacy is such that it's nickname has come to mean confusion and chaos. Though it was called a hospital, little treatment took place, it was basically a warehouse for those who were considered insane, and the patients were treated abysmally, usually chained, beaten, and ill-nourished.

There were reformers, such as Jean-Marc Itard, who treated the "Wild Boy of Aveyron," and was one of the first to realize that deaf people might not be simpletons, and Dorothea Dix, who instigated reforms during the 19th century in America. But even these reforms were not what we would consider modern. In the 1880's, journalist Nellie Bly posed as an insane woman and got herself committed to an asylum on New York's Blackwell's Island, where she saw the horrors perpetrated there. Again, this led to reforms, but it wasn't until shockingly recently that mental hospitals game out of the Gothic era.

As part of my class, I learned that, as part of the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, forced sterilization was common for people with disabilities. This was upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell in 1927, the decision written by the normally humane Oliver Wendell Holmes. In his opinion, he likened compulsory sterilization to vaccination as part of the common good.

I also watched a video about a "school" for the disabled in Staten Island, New York called Willowbrook. In 1972, Geraldo Rivera did a report and managed to sneak into the facility, where he found students given no education, sitting in their own filth, and with a one-hundred percent hepatitis rate. This was in my lifetime! Some students there were misdiagnosed (as has often happened throughout history)--one fellow was there for eighteen years but was mentally sound--he happened to have speech difficulties due to cerebral palsy.

I certainly hope that this kind of treatment has been expunged, although who knows what it means to be mentally ill in countries where homosexuality is outlawed and girls are given clitoridectomies. As a species, we slowly but surely crawl out of the mud and continue toward the sunlight. As a teacher, I know that every effort is made to ensure that every student gets an equal education, and laws have been passed, with bipartisan support, that have made that the law of the land.

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