Disability History Awareness Month – What is it and why do we need it?

A close up photograph of a hand resting on the wheel of a wheelchair.

The conversation around a disabled person’s worth has been the topic of debate for centuries and is one that is still being discussed to this day. Throughout history people with disabilities have generally been considered as inferior beings by society, ‘defective’ and an imperfection in an otherwise ‘perfect’ world that needed to be hidden away and, in many cases, treated as less than human.

In order to understand why it’s so necessary to have Disability History Awareness Month, we have to look at how people with physical or mental disabilities have been treated in the past and for the most part, it hasn’t been great (to put it mildly). In the middle-ages people born with disabilities (no matter what kind), were often viewed as being punished by God or living in purgatory and care for them was generally left to the Church, with nuns and monks providing shelter, food and clothing.

When Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, many of these institutions and hospitals were destroyed along with them, leaving the disabled in an even worse position. Unless they had family willing to take them in and help care for them, they were often abandoned or left to fend for themselves.

By the mid 18th Century, disabled people mostly relied on charity from the local parish or from family and by the mid 19th Century, it was thought more beneficial for those with mental ill-health and those who were deemed as ‘feeble-minded’ (what we today would call those with learning disabilities, Downs Syndrome and the Neurodiverse) to be housed in institutions, mainly asylums and sanatoriums. These were mostly funded by the rich who wanted to use their money for good, or those who wanted to be seen doing so.

For the last 150 years, the theory of Eugenics has been pervasive, particularly when it comes to disabilities. The concept involves the idea that the human race can be improved through selective breeding, pairing together only those with perceived superior characteristics and healthy bodies in order to ‘breed out’ the more undesirable traits, like mental illness, criminal tendencies and poverty which was believed to be hereditary.

In terms of disabilities, eugenics meant segregation, forced sterilisations, removal of children (as people with disabilities were not thought capable of raising them) and denial of basic human rights. There are horror stories littered throughout the past century of the inhumane treatment of those who were locked away in asylums, ignored by society, experimented on and abused. While there were many institutions where compassion and therapeutic treatment were the focus, this was not always the case.

After the atrocities of the Holocaust, where millions of people with mental and physical disabilities were killed, tortured and forcibly sterilised, the interest in eugenics as a way of controlling disability, thankfully waned. However, this didn’t necessarily mean things became easier, the focus just changed. Attention was then given to how to make those with ‘impairments’ fit into society, not how to adjust to them. For example, if a deaf person is unable to hear a fire alarm, the problem is that they’re deaf not that the alarm is purely based on sound. This is known as the Medical Model of Disability and is extremely limiting.

The Social Model of Disability began gaining ground in the 1970s and is the exact opposite seeing disability as a civil rights issue and not purely medical. The Disability People’s Movement believes that restructuring society will help ‘cure’ disability and not the other way around. The disability isn’t the problem, society and its beliefs are.

Even so, the disabled still relied on charity until the early 1990’s when several disability rights movements protested about the lack of legislation regarding rights for the disabled. It wasn’t until the Disabilities Discrimination Act was created in 1995 that disabled people actually gained legal protection although many were unhappy at the restrictive nature of it, saying that if a disability fell outside the definition but was still discriminated against, there would be no opportunity for reparation.

While there have been many amendments to the DDA, it was finally replaced by the Equality Act in 2010, which not only covers rights for the disabled, but also all previous legislation regarding discrimination on the basis of age, gender, religion and sexual orientation. The act defines disability as:

‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities'.

It is deliberately designed to be as broad as possible, ensuring that a wide variety of conditions and disabilities are covered allowing for much more flexibility for the millions of people who have invisible or hidden conditions. These people may not have been viewed as being stereotypically disabled in the past but many of them also hid their conditions out of fear of being viewed negatively, regardless of the difficulties that caused.

Physical or mental impairments can include; physical impairments, sensory impairments (being blind or deaf for example), learning difficulties such as Dyslexia or Dyspraxia, learning disabilities, mental health conditions like Depression, Anxiety and PTSD, conditions such as Asthma, Diabetes or Epilepsy if they have an impact on your day to day life, genetic and progressive conditions, conditions characterised by pain and fatigue such as fibromyalgia, and other conditions like Lupus, HIV, Cancer and Arthritis. The list is extensive.

Unfortunately, although the definition has been widened and the legislation is in place, it still doesn’t always protect those with a disability from discrimination. Discrimination still happens and it’s not until someone takes legal action that anything is done about it, but it really shouldn’t be that way. Legal action is time-consuming, expensive and can cause significant mental distress and not everyone feels able to go through the process, if they can even afford it as all cases are civil, not criminal, meaning the onus is on the person being discriminated against to instigate proceedings, not law enforcement.

Disability History Month in the UK was created as a way to shine a spotlight on the struggles for human rights and dignity that all disabled people have faced throughout history and are still fighting for. During the month, supporting organisations take the opportunity to collaborate and organise events bringing much-needed

publicity, advocating for disability equality all while providing education and awareness to those who need it.

It’s clear that, although we have made great strides in the journey towards equality, much more still needs to be done. The years of austerity have adversely and disproportionately affected the disabled and the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. The need for an entire month devoted to Disability Awareness has become even more apparent although a disappointing necessity.

To find out more about Disability History Awareness Month and get involved, check out https://ukdhm.org/ for more information.

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Disability and Equality Acts