So here’s a really disturbing riddle:
What do New York City’s public schools, Alexander Graham Bell, Planned Parenthood, Auschwitz, and Geraldo Rivera have in common?
They all grappled with eugenics.
- The city’s public schools were founded to protect the culture of native born elites;
- Bell promoted oralism to make sure the deaf didn’t develop their own culture*;
- Margaret Sanger believed some people were fit to reproduce and some were not;
- The Nazis’ final solution was partly modeled on California’s eugenics laws*;
- Before he went over the edge, Geraldo Rivera did a powerful investigative report on the Willowbrook State School where intellectually disabled children were warehoused and experimented on.
If history is viewed as a series of isolated events, then it’s easy to pass off discrimination as personal discomfort or ignorance. Even on a larger scale, the case can be made that customs or laws are just misguided or stem from ignorance. But when the dots get connected, when we see there’s a straight line from Auschwitz to Willowbrook, that many school systems, including Syracuse, still function according to segregationist principles, it’s much harder to make that case.
It’s important to understand disability history for many reasons, and that understanding is key to dismantling ableism. For my purposes, from a policy perspective, it’s crucial to understand this history because it is a refutation of the medical model, that disability is a pathological condition situated within an individual, and its logical flip side, that discrimination against people with disabilities is also an individual act, based on ignorance or fear. What becomes clear is that ableism has served a purpose. It has in many ways been an intentionally employed tool of control. It has been encouraged and rationalized and legalized and institutionalized in order to oppress.
Eugenics, which was (and continues to be?) very influential in the United States, takes the medical model of disability to its extreme conclusion: Not only is disability situated in the individual, limited ability is inherent in the race, ethnicity, physical condition, and social behavior of the individual. In order to protect itself from “all the ‘defective’ classes,”* society oppresses those it deems less than, through minimal opportunity, segregation, sterilization, and possibly murder.*
Longmore helps us see how the dots - individual people and events - connect to the larger context so that we can understand that ableism isn’t personal, it’s systemic. Understanding this history, seeing the patterns of oppression, the connections between different persecuted groups - based on an assumption of limited ability - helps us frame the response to ableism. If we really understand how it was constructed, we can figure out how to break it down.
* I’m not sure how to cite information because there aren’t real page numbers on my kindle edition. All starred information is from Longmore, chapters 2, 3, and 4. I’d appreciate suggestions on how to cite properly.