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How Victorians Taught Us to Treat People With Disabilities

Roundup
tags: industrialism, disabilities, Victorianism



Lisa Hix is a journalist and the associate editor of Collectors Weekly

In Netflix’s “Daredevil” series, a 2015 adaptation of a 1960s Marvel comic, flashbacks reveal that an accident blinding a boy also enhances his other four senses and gives him one more—radar location. That means the adult Matt Murdock can be a lawyer by day and a masked crime fighter by night, using his extra-sharp hearing, smelling, touch, and reflexes to brawl with villains he can’t see. In reality, a person with one impairment will have other talents and rely on different senses to navigate the world, but it’s never beyond the scope of natural human capacity. Disability scholars refer to such myths of super-human skills as a “fantasies of compensation,” which, like most of our popular beliefs about disability, come from the Victorian Era.

In fact, society didn’t have a concept of “lacking ability” until industrialization, which, by the 19th century, had created an obsessive demand for “able-bodied workers” who could rapidly churn out mountains of goods. Unfortunately, in the 1800s the sciences of biology and medicine hadn’t kept pace with advances in mechanical technology, so one infection or unfortunate encounter with a factory machine could lead to invalidism, loss of a limb, or early death. As people with disabilities became more visible and regarded as problematic, able-bodied citizens started to feel compassion for what they perceived as tragic lives. What to do with all these “unproductive” bodies?

Everyone had different ideas. Social reformers in the 19th century attempted to “normalize” people with disabilities through rehabilitation, education, and discreet new prosthetics. Inventors created all sorts of bizarre quack devices to help people “overcome” their disabilities. Certain educators even waged a war against sign language to force deaf people to learn how to speak like regular folk. Darwin-inspired eugenicists supported sterilizing anyone thought to have inherited undesirable traits, which physiognomists asserted could be read on one’s face or body. Many people with obvious physical disabilities and deformities still made a living by being gawked at and mocked in freak shows, while men with deformities but deep pockets raised their own esteem by joining Ugly Clubs, even as cities were starting to pass “ugly laws” against “unsightly beggars.”

Before industrialization, British scholar Lennard J. Davis asserts in his book, Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body, people with disabilities were an integrated part of their community, though subjected to regular ridicule. For example, according to Davis, in ancient Greece, people with physical or mental impairments were likely to be given tasks suited to their unique abilities or that accommodated their slower pace. So-called freak shows got their start in medieval Europe, where men with hunchbacks, dwarfism, or other physical or mental disabilities, who were considered “natural fools,” were hired to create comedy routines that played up their differences; some eventually became trusted advisors to royalty as court jesters. Even in the 18th century, it was socially acceptable to point and laugh at a person who looked or moved in an obviously different way.

When capitalism exploded in the 19th century, it created a middle class obsessed with “normalcy,” and as industrialization spread, Western society put an emphasis on the body as a means of production and productivity as a means to citizenship. Then, having a disability was seen as more sad than funny. Men who couldn’t work were thought to have more in common with women, while disabled women had a harder time fulfilling their gender role of getting married and having children....

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