A common refrain that is often espoused these days by the able-bodied is, “Why are there so many more disabled children today than when I was growing up?” To many, the seeming “epidemic” levels of disabilities such as autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and so on is frighteningly high. Looking to answers such as an abundance of pesticides, vaccines, ultrasounds, “chemicals” and other culprits is increasingly common as people search for an answer. When someone says it is due to better diagnosis or a broadening of diagnostic criteria, people like prominent ableist Jenny McCarthy respond:
“All you have to do is find a schoolteacher or principal and ask them that question. They would say they’ve never seen so much ADHD, autism, OCD as in the past. I think we’re over diagnosing it by maybe 1%. Now you look around and there are five shadows — kids with disabilities — in every class.”
I have no idea where she gets the label “shadow” from and I don’t care; it is par for the course with her. She is completely wrong about many things. At any rate, the answer to the burning question of why there are so many more disabled children now is this:
They used to be institutionalized and were kept out of society at much higher rates.
The film Lost in Laconia (closed captioned) about Laconia State School in New Hampshire, provides answers from those who were inmates at Laconia State School, employees of the school, parents whose children were sent there and Disability Rights activists who know of the school’s history. Laconia is not unusual by any means. For almost one hundred years, disabled children and adults lived out their lives at “schools” such as Laconia, Willowbrook and others.
Where I live in Syracuse, New York, the local institution for disabled people was called the New York State Asylum for Idiots. My great grandmother, Nellie Kearney, worked there as a maid after immigrating to the area from Ireland in 1905. In nearby Rome, New York, one of the asylums was called the New York State Custodial Asylum for Unteachable Idiots, established in 1893. Some of these institutions also admitted those who had epilepsy, but there were separate asylums for epileptics as well, just as there were separate asylums for the Deaf and blind. Asylums and schools changed over one hundred years as trends in diagnosing and defining disability differed, but they remained places that disabled children were deposited and kept segregated from society. Laconia State School closed its doors in 1991, following the closure of many institutions.
Doctors and state employees would often tell parents of disabled children, especially if they were poor, to admit them to one of these schools. As discussed in Lost in Laconia, parents in the 1950s had no context in which to understand their children’s diagnosis of what was often “mental retardation”, a term that had its beginnings in that era. Mental retardation was a blanket term that was applied to many disabled children, not just those who had low IQs. Intelligence Quotient as a means of defining intellect and ability has roots in the eugenics movement, and is highly problematic and inaccurate when it comes to the abilities of those who are disabled or people of color. The test was given to people during the eugenics era to weed out what were considered undesirable members of the population. The label “feeble minded” was applied to citizens based on race, class and disability and was a way for the hegemony to control and select who could participate in society and have power. African American women were sterilized in tremendous numbers and were often not told what was happening to them whether they were given the feeble-minded label or not. The effects of this injustice continue to this day.
Sterilization and institutionalization followed the “feeble-minded” label. Other terms used as part of this diagnosis were idiot, moron and imbecile. So when you use those words, think about where they came from and what they mean to disabled people. Eugenics, largely started in the United States, reached its popularity during the early twentieth century and continues to be an ideology, as it has morphed into new areas of expression such as genetics. The era reached its apex with the adoption of eugenic ideology in Nazi Germany. The first group of people to be exterminated by the Nazis during the holocaust were disabled people, many of whom were living in the type of “schools” and asylums mentioned above. The course of action taken by Germany was to either kill or allow disabled people to starve to death. Starvation was a tool used by Stalin and Hitler during this period in history, as it was the most inexpensive way for millions of people to die.
Disabled asylum inmates during the Third Reich were considered too expensive to care for and not deserving of humanity or life, and it was believed that if they were murdered, it would facilitate the end of an inheritable, genetically “defective” line of humans, therefore eradicating disability completely. Sterilization and sequestration were preferable to outright extermination of disabled people in the United States, so they were housed in asylums. Children who were given the feeble minded and later “mentally retarded” label were considered unteachable. Those who had things like cerebral palsy, autism, intellectual disability, hearing loss and learning disabilities were sequestered in “schools” and asylums, and given nothing to do all day. They ended up being abused, neglected and treated like sub human beings.
The liberation of children from these conditions began in the late 1960s in part due Wolf Wolfensberger’s essay “The Origin and Nature of Our Institutional Models”, published in 1969. The essay stated that “mentally retarded” people were kept in institutions due to biased and discriminatory thinking about their value as human beings, which has its roots in the eugenics movement and a history of preconceptions, prejudice and lack of understanding. The institutions were the physical manifestation of these attitudes, and the abuse within their walls was a result. As Wolfenberger wrote:
It is a well-established fact that a person’s behavior tends to be profoundly affected by the role expectations that are placed upon him. Generally, people will play the roles they have been assigned. This permits those who define social roles to make self-fulfilling prophecies by predicting that someone cast into a certain role will emit behavior consistent with that role. Unfortunately, role-appropriate behavior will then often be interpreted as a person’s “natural” rather than elicited mode of acting.
Wolfenberger was instrumental at Syracuse University with programs at the School of Education which continues to deconstruct and dismantle ideas of disability. Also pivotal in the movement was Burton Blatt, who, along with Fred Kaplan, wrote “Christmas in Purgatory”, a photographic essay of the experience of mentally retarded inmates of state schools. Syracuse University School of Education and its staff has worked for decades to promote inclusion of those with disabilities in education and society. Assuming that disabled people are not intelligent is a bias that many there, including Steven Taylor, Christine Ashby and Douglas Biklen have worked hard to dispel. As a result of the work of pioneering disability activists in many arenas, disabled children are not taken from their parents and put into state schools and institutions they way they used to be. Parents include their disabled children in the family and look to schools and communities to assist with accommodations and support. Because a person may look different, do things differently or communicate in non-typical ways does not mean that person is unintelligent, incompetent and has nothing to offer. Disability Studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes that she supports a biodiverse world. Ability, intellect, insight and brilliance do not appear in only one type of person. Those who experience life from a different vantage point enrich society with diverse insights, and deserve humanity and respect like anyone else. Leaving children to suffer in deprivation, shuttered away in abysmal, dank and disease ridden buildings is not something that benefits anyone and is shameful. So why are there more disabled children in schools now? Because there have been great strides made to shut places like Laconia down and include people in society and education. If your child has a disabled classmate, or two, or five, it is because those children are considered worthy of being educated and worthy of existing alongside able-bodied people. Human society is diverse and it always has been, and diversity is hugely enriching and necessary in order for all people to thrive, excel, and be happy. The presence of disabled people in society now should not incur mass hysteria about vaccines, pesticides or GMOs. We should be celebrating the fact that places like Laconia are considered inhumane, and that disabled people like myself can exist in society with pride, respect and inclusion.