Disability, A Crippled History

Please note:  Some of the language and references below are based on the time and place in history and are not meant to be offensive to anyone!


“(It) is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

                                                     – Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes
Oliver Wendell Holmes

I love a good quote, like the next person, but this really sent chills up my spine.  Mr. Holmes wrote this in response to the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the compulsory sterilization of “mental defectives” as constitutional in the US in 1927.  Further, it was considered a “careful” safeguard that was supposed to protect the public!


…AND do you know, that this ruling has not been overturned to this day!  These days, he’d be fired and blasted all over the news and social media.  Can you imagine the tweets?  My how times have changed!

As you will read, many illnesses or unexplained circumstances, for lack of a better term, were lumped into various diagnoses of mental disorders, disabilities, or medical assumptions that don’t seem to make sense today.  In fact, some things would be laughable if not so…I don’t know..SAD!

Consider this:


In 1792, Dr. Benjamin Rush believed that African skin color was due to a form of congenital leprosy he referred to as “Negritude.” Further, he believed skin color could be changed through aggressive rubbing.  I wonder how many people were experimented on before this was disproved?  Yikes!

In 1851, Louisiana Dr. Samuel Cartwright identifies Drapetomania as a mental disorder that made slaves run away, and  Dysaethesia Aethiopica, or “rascality” symptomized by disobedience, insolence, and a refusal to work.   Treatment for these so-called “mental disorders” was whipping and hard labor.  These slaves could have just wanted out of deplorable circumstances!  OMG!

Below are a few pieces of our history, some good some bad, but all interesting.

Stephen Hopkins, one of our country’s founding fathers and signers of the Declaration Of Independence in 1776 had Cerebral Palsy.  He was known for saying “My hands may tremble, but my heart does not.” I know, cool huh?!

In August 1921, while vacationing at Campo-Bello Island, New Brunswick, Franklin D. Roosevelt the 32nd president of the United States contracted an illness that caused paralysis from the waist down. FDR was one of the founders of the March of Dimes which was first known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

Franklin D Roosevelt, Ruthie Bie, and dog Falla


In 1939 the Nazi Program Kills Thousands. Adolph Hitler orders “mercy killing” of the sick and disabled. This was considered a euthanasia program to eliminate “life unworthy of life.” An astounding 75,000 to 250,000 people with intellectual or physical disabilities were killed from 1939 to 1941. I have no words to express my deep regret for this piece of history!

Eunice Kennedy Shriver founded the Special Olympics in honor of her sister Rosemary who underwent a failed Lobotomy in 1941 in an attempt to cure her lifetime “mild retardation” and aggressive behavior.  The operation failed (of course) leaving her totally incapacitated for the rest of her life.


In 1953 Clemens Benda, clinical director at the Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts, an institution for boys with mental retardation,  requested parental consent for 100 teenagers to attend a “science club” that included a field trip and snacks.

Clemens Benda        Picture credit:  US   National Library of Medicine

In the invitation, Benda mentions an experiment where “blood samples” would be taken after a breakfast containing calcium, but fails to mention that radioactive substances (for experimental purposes) were given to the boys in their oatmeal.  Not sure what came out of this besides a bunch of sick teenagers and pissed off parents!



The Civil Rights Act is passed in 1964 and helps address discrimination against African Americans and women in the workplace.  It did not consider people with disabilities. In fact, the discussion of the inclusion of the disabled was considered distracting.


In 1973 it becomes illegal for federal agencies, public universities, and other public institutions receiving any federal funds to discriminate on the basis of disability.

The Americans with Disabilities for Accessible Public Transportation, now known as ADAPT, began a national campaign for adding lifts to busses and access to public transit in 1983 for people with disabilities.  Under the leadership of Bob Kafka, Stephanie Thomas, and Mike Auberger ADAPT blocked buses in many cities across the US for years to demonstrate the need for access to public transit.

ADAPT protest in Las Vegas 1994      Picture credit: Everybody.si.edu

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in July 1990 by President George H W Bush.  The founding father of the ADA, Justin Dart was right next to the president when it was signed.


In 2004, the First Disability Pride Parade was held in Chicago.  There were 500 to 600 expected and almost 2000 attended!  Here’s a link to the Disability Pride Parade in case you’re interested.

The ADA was expanded quite a bit between 2000 and now…

  • Cruise ships were included in 2005 as a result of Spector v Norwegian Cruise lines
  • In 2006 the US Supreme Court v Georgia, prisons were included preventing discrimination by prison officials
  • The 2008 ADA Amendment Act, expanded the definition of disability to be more inclusive
  • 2011 new ADA rules went into effect for recreational facilities such as swimming pools, golf courses, gyms, and boating facilities


I used multiple resources to assist in my learning process and have included several below.   These sources have much more in-depth information if you’d like to read more.


Thank you for reading!  I promise that my next post will be more fun!

Love and Light!



National Consortium on Leadership and Disability For Youth

Museum Of Disability

Rooted In Rights: History of Disability Rights


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