November 01, 2014

Equality for People with Disabilities, Then and Now

Disability Rights Through the Mid-20th Century

By Rhonda Neuhaus and Cindy Smith
(Special thanks to Silvia Bruckback)

The laws of any nation reflect societal values. Historically, the laws of the United States devalued persons with disabilities as society as a whole viewed such persons as a group of people to be pitied, ridiculed, rejected, and feared, or as objects of fascination. Persons with disabilities were seen as objects of charity or welfare or as needing to be subjected to medical treatment or cure. As a result of these views, persons with disabilities were denied basic human rights (as is quite frequently still the case today). Early laws and actions through the late 20th century reflected these beliefs. Since that time, the country’s laws and policies have evolved and have been enacted with the growing assumption that persons with disabilities should be full and equal participants in all aspects of society.

Policies prohibiting community participation and civil rights. These early attitudes developed in Europe and followed American colonists to the United States. Views of persons with disabilities and subsequent policies resulted from a view of humanity that was common at the time that combined magic, religion, medicine, and science. For example, an early policy in the Massachusetts Bay Colony required the bodies of stillborn children to be examined for witchcraft. By the 1800s, persons with disabilities were not only viewed as evil omens resulting from witchcraft or punishment to parents but also as medical anomalies to be studied.

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