Guarding the Future by Knowing our Past

on June 21, 2010

By Herman Husband

Today, when people think about accommodations for people with disabilities, or equal physical access, often the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) comes to mind first. In 1990, George H.W. Bush sign into law officially the Americans with Disabilities Act, which addressed access in several broad areas including:

  • Title I. Employment
  • Title II. Public Services
  • Title III. Public Accommodations and Services Operated by Private Entities
  • Title V Miscellaneous Provisions

In 2008 the ADA Amendments Act was signed into law, and became effective January 1st, 2009. As with all laws on the books, later interpretation of the law (in the courts) public perception, and the law’s enforcement are crucial to the day-to-day impact on the civil rights of those with disabilities. As with all Liberties, Americans should take the time to learn their legal rights, the source of those rights, and their history.

It should be obvious, that increased public access didn’t materialize out of thin air in 1990, and that we still have a distance to travel in 2010.

The first school for the deaf in America opened in 1817, and later became known officially as Gallaudet University in 1894. In Europe however, “schools for the deaf” were being established as early as 1755. Before this development however, in 1616 “G. Bonifacio published a treatise discussing sign language, [titled] “Of The Art of Signs.” 1. This publication along with other studies, started to break down the misperception (that many people had at the time) that people who were deaf could not reason. Aristotle in 355 BC believed that those “born deaf become senseless and incapable of reason.” 1. Our modern understanding that all people regardless of disability can contribute to society, was not without major steps backward – even in America.

During the mid 19th century several movements developed, that sought to use “science” to genetically manipulate the human race and used sterilization and institutions to carry out their plan. By using any modern measurement-stick now, most folks can see their words and actions as abhorrent. But many famous and powerful people in American history (that for some sad reason, have not been exposed for the bigots they were) pushed for policies that led to mass sterilization laws in the United States and elsewhere, starting with Indiana. “The mid-west American state of Indiana was the first political entity in the world to pass [a] eugenically-based sterilization law in 1907. Within twenty-five years, more than one-third of the states in the union had also passed similar laws.” 2 In 1927 in the now infamous Buck vs. Bell case, heard before the US supreme court, they deemed (by a 8-1 margin) that it was legal for the state to sterilize Kerrie Buck, a 17 year-old girl. In his majority opinion, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes,” and concluded, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” 3

Individuals like Margaret Sanger, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, and HG Wells were proponents of the Eugenics movement. George Bernard Shaw said that “there is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilizations.” 4 H.G Wells in 1902 said: “This thing, this euthanasia of the weak and sensual, is possible. On principles that will animate the predominant classes of a new time, it will be permissible, and I have little or no doubt that in the future it will be planned and achieved.”

In sharing our past, I don’t suggest we are doomed to repeat our past mistakes. We have made great progress over the past few decades, but it is vital for all to be willing to look at some ugly truths of our shared history to learn from it, and guard against it.

Sources: 1.) http://www.disabilityhistory.org/timeline_ new.html 2.) http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_ mla_apa_research_citation/1/7/8/2/6/ p178261_index.html 3.) Time Magazine v.153, n.1, 11 January 1999 article by Paul Gray. 4.) Eugenics and Other Evils, Chesterton p.59 5.) Final Chapter of The Faith of the New Republic, written by HG Wells in 1902.

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