Why Are There So Many More Disabled People Now?

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.


Film still of the large room in which inmates of Laconia State School were kept, with only a small area at the perimeter in which to spend their days.

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.

ROMEDoctors 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 men in Nazi Germany. The Nazis deployed the Aktion T4 program to exterminate disabled citizens. This was the first extermination program that the Nazis used. Disabled people were first targeted to begin the process of eliminating vast swaths of the population systematically.

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.


Syracuse State Institution for Feeble Minded Children, Syracuse, New York. The term “Feeble Minded” was a blanket term for many disabilities and conditions, and often was given to the impoverished in order to keep them from society.

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.


38 thoughts on “Why Are There So Many More Disabled People Now?

      • Lol, how would she know what a 1:1 classroom aide is? She brought the best ABA teachers and therapists into her home to teach her child in a classroom she had specially designed and built….and then instead of crediting them with his success, she claims it was all that woo she did.

    • I couldn’t find a place to just leave a comment so I am putting mine here…. I have a grandson named Jackson who is on the autism spectrum, another named Luke has Aspergers ….. I have known since Jackson was a toddler that he was way smarter than his mum, dad and his specialist knew, even smarter than me and my IQ is 148. When said specialist was making comments Jack’s would look at me and smile then do exactly what the specialist said he couldn’t do and then we would both laugh afterwards. I am 60 years old and I now look back and I can see the signs so clearly now that they have been brought to my attention…. school friends, family members…. so many years ago loved ones just classed as being loners…… I myself am happy in my own company… I don’t need a lot of noise or going out to make me feel good… the only company I really love is that of my partner, my children, their spouses and of course my grandsons… especially my grandsons. I think if we all in honesty looked inside ourselves we could all see just a little ASP in all of us 🙂

  1. Pingback: Why Are There So Many More Disabled People Now? | Zion Interrupted

  2. I think this was an interesting article with many valid points. I noticed that ADHD & OCD were mentioned in the introduction and not again throughout the article. Are there more cases now or were they simply able to blend into society because they often have normal or high IQs?
    Honestly, I don’t think that pesticides, GMOs and other toxins can be completely discounted given the rise in food allergies and numerous other medical issues. Most likely, there are many factors in these contributing to these cases.

    • I would venture to say that ADHD used to be called a strong willed or “difficult” child and OCD was often labeled “eccentric”.

  3. Interesting points, however, they only account for the last hundred years or so of human history. What about before that? I am inclined to think that another factor at work is that medical advances result in individuals living past infancy/childhood who may not have been able to do so in earlier periods of human history due to life threatening medical conditions often associated with certain disabilities. This is true for all individuals of course, not only those with developmental disabilities, and clearly it is a wonderful thing because all human life is precious. Just another factor to consider in addition to those you have discussed.

  4. Biklen brought us Facilitated Communication, the ‘Clever Hans’ story of the 20th Century. I’m not sure whe should be celebrating him. He’s the reason why a great many people don’t take Syracuse University seriously anymore.

  5. honestly im a tad torn between two thoughts on this, no i do not beleuive that slower children should be left out but by the same token do not deprive the faster learning students of their right to an education either, which is what i have seen happening .instead is it possible to have the classes taught in 3 segments? faster, medium,sower and maybe have the faster students tutor the slower ones? seems to me i learned more when i taught then when i was taught: and i was fast in some classes, medium in others and slow in a few too.

  6. I am going to say that the teacher in paragraph 2 is at least partially right. Anyone who is not honors level is likely to have some form of disability classification, because “honors” is the new “normal”. I had parents demand their kid be put in honors because, “everybody knows honors students do better on SATs”. As a retired HS science teacher, I have seen classified students perform as well as “normal” students, even without adaptive adjustments when the expectation was raised. They have been told they were dumb for so long that they believe it. ADHD is over-diagnosed. When the system can’t determine why a kid doesn’t learn, they get classified. Totally ignored are the other factors, such as home environment, frequent moves, peer pressure, nutrition, sleep, and other medical issues. Disability classification is an easy way to shift blame to the student instead of the system. Another problem is parents who seek classification for their normal children so they can get extra time on the standardized tests.
    There are some who need the classification in order to be successful. In 35 years, I saw the number of students in my districts, go up only slightly. But I taught in a private school 35 years ago where they looked for ways to classify students because they could get more state aid.
    It is a dis-service to all students to identify a single reason why the numbers go up. It is a complicated issue made harder by the fact that there are multiple variables in the answer. I call BS on anyone who can find a single solution to a complex problem of human behavior.

    • They are NOT ignored- they are part of the screening process. That said, just because a child has had frequent moves etc does not mean that they do NOT have a learning disability. You are correct however, to have high- but reasonable- expectations- I have seen children with processing difficulties and very much a ‘learning condition’ [I would not say they are disabled]- they need information brought in different modes or at a slower pace to be able to process it.That said, there are those whose disability is caused or influenced by the pregnancy – as a whole in society,
      many who do not take care of themselves when pregnant or do not take proper care of the infant or toddler afterwards- improper nutrition, neglect, abuse etc- are having a definite impact in the population.So much is determined by what happens in the first 5 years- things that cannot be reversed or changed.
      The question is not, where do these children fit, for they are included- the question is, where can these adults fit in society? as many remain on the streets for being unable to care for themselves, hold a job, or relate in a social setting without assistance; or they are in group homes or in hospital like settings. So, we have patted ourselves on the back for making the inclusive setting in the schools- when in reality- they are not far from where they were before. Truth being, many do have limited capabilities and employment can be problematic- but what is ‘inclusion’ in society?

  7. My Mother was before her time. My sister Betty who has profound developmental disabilities went everywhere my family went. However she spent one year in an awful place called O’berry Center. She almost died in that horrible place. I was in second grade and I can”t get the smells, sounds and sights out of my memory. She was there because my Dad was stationed out of the country at the time. Betty came out of that place on 20 plus medicines. Within 6 months Mom got it back to just one for seizures. Doctors said she would live past her teens, she is 54 this year. Some states are still living in these dark ages with these places still existent today. I would like to add that some or most country’s still do not educate people with developmental disabilities, China just started in 2014. America is the only nation that educates 100% of the children.

  8. maybe her intention is to have disabled children return to the shadows and therefore invisible once again.

  9. First, I think that the article is somewhat misleading, as the article deals primarily with disabled “children”, as opposed to disabled “people”.

    Second, I think that while the article makes good points, but that environmental factors are important as well. Research shows that exposure to lead paint has had a significant impact on disability. Furthermore, recent research has shown that response to neighborhood violence can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which has very similar symptoms to ADHD. As childhood poverty rates increase, incidents of disability rise also.

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