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Where We Start

There's a day for every thing now, isn't there? Always an excuse for a parade, an afternoon off, a discount at your local puzzle outlet. Holidays are fun and all, but the post office needs to be open some time! How many barbershop quartets do you know anyway, and do they really deserve a whole day of celebration? (I would argue yes, but that's because I'm a big fan of stripes and mustaches.)

Although, disability pride month makes a little more sense. There are approximately 54 million people living with at least one disability in The United States. If we're to believe Dunbar's number, which posits we can only maintain 150 relationships at once, and there are 332 million people in The United States, there are about 24.4 disabled people in your orbit. (We'll count the .4 guy. Maybe he gets bad hay fever or something.)

If you list out your 150 relationships and deduce that you don't much care for those 24.4 broken people anyway, a condensed history may soften the blow of disability flag filters and the influx of poorly promoted walking fundraisers sure to christen your feed sometime over the next month.

Disabled people might get parking placards and free entrance to national parks now, but the road to easy livin' was mighty long. In the early 19th century, people with disabilities were often dropped off in poorhouses, which are exactly as beautiful as they sound. Once there, staff would heavily sedate them, usually for the remainder of their sad, sedentary lives. This practice applied to adults, children, even babies -- which sounds like a hair-brained scheme to get a full night's sleep if I've ever heard one. New parents, take notes.

Pictured: Fun Town, USA

While wealthier parents could afford to stow their disabled children away in one of their forty-seven bathrooms and have the maid feed them scraps through the bottom of the doorway, poorer families without that kind of square footage often took to placing the disabled child in a wheelbarrow, pushing it to the next town over, and just leaving it there. This was called "passing on", a morbidly accurate term dually great in its multi-meaning. Color me endeared. (Parents: How are those notes coming?)

The first time someone of means spoke up for the disabled happened somewhere in the 1820s, and it came from Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol, a French psychiatrist. He said intellectual deficiency could be divided into two groups: Idiocy and imbecility. Sensing his natural talent for poetic description, he continued: "[The imbecile is] generally well formed, and their organization is nearly normal. They enjoy the use of the intellectual and affective faculties, but in less degree than the perfect man." Idiots, on the other hand, "cannot control their senses. They hear, but do not understand; they see, but do not regard. Having no ideas, and thinking not, they have nothing to desire..."

This man was hailed for his genius in the decades that followed, but very little tangible change took place. People of the past entertained new philosophical ideas mostly as a means to pass the time, not a catalyst to change behavior. Anyway, there were bare-knuckle boxing matches to attend! Nobody wants to sit around pondering the fate of those confined to a Gouty Chair. Gross!

Anyway, in Switzerland, a physician with the pleasantly buoyant last name Guggenbühl was established a school for children with thyroid deficiencies -- or, as they were known at the time, cretins. Guggenbühl was convinced that lower altitudes had something to do with his patients' "stupid appearance", and so built his school on a mountain summit, 4,000 feet above sea level. This did not, unfortunately, cure said "cretinism", and so the school was shut down in 1860. Guggenbühl died in disgrace three years later.

But everything gets better from here!

Just kidding.

It's 1863.

Things are weird for a while.

The Eugenics Movement swept across the globe in the early 20th century, and it brought a rise in violence against all minority groups and people who didn't like Sauerbraten. The Eugenics theory was, perhaps most famously, adopted by the Nazis. Not ones to talk the sprechen without walking the gehen, the Nazi party enacted the "Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring" on July 14th, 1933 (happy almost 90th anniversary <3). This law allowed state-sanctioned sterilization of those deemed "unfit" for breeding. This included depressed, epileptic, blind, and deaf people, even alcoholics.

The Nazis chipped away at their disabled population for six long years, but when all out war broke out in 1939, they had to switch tactics. Starving children with cerebral palsy and x-raying schizophrenics' reproductive organs into sterilization was simply too slow a process for a country engulfed in battle. They needed to get creative, and so, the first gas chambers disguised as showers were brought to Brandenberg. Hitler was so impressed with this efficient method of mass killing that it was later applied within concentration camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau.

More than 400,000 people were forcibly sterilized during the Nazi regime, 2,000 of which died before the end of the war, and 250,000 disabled people were outright murdered by 1945.

One great thing about the Nazis -- and there are not very many of those! -- is that they were so wicked, so tragically ignorant and foul and enshrouded in dreadful darkness that they serve as a sort of beacon of evil. If human beings can be rated on a scale of good to not-so-good, the Nazis certainly bookend the lower end of it. Their wrongdoing is so obvious, after all, so undeniably vile and well-documented, that mistakes of similar proportions could never even so much as be suggested without prompt social out-casting and public shaming.


Ever heard of William Shockley? I haven't, but that's because he's a tech head and I do not know the difference between USB-C and USB-A. (Is A bigger? Why are there different sizes to begin with? One hole wasn't enough?)

William Shockley coinvented the transistor, which is considered the most important invention of the 20th century because it paved the way for modern electronics. Shockley himself is regarded as "one of the century's most important scientists", at least according to Time magazine. He even served as Research Director of the Anti-submarine Warfare Operations Research Group during the Second World War.

He also wanted to replace welfare with a “Voluntary Sterilization Bonus Plan", which would "pay low-IQ women to undergo sterilization".

Sometimes I think the worst thing Hitler ever did was ignite the passions of our most vile men, posthumously daring them to best his number.

If a Nobel prize winning physicist, Stanford professor, and war hero fell victim to narrow and condescending views of those with learning disabilities, who among us is not at risk?

Certainly not me, because I have a disability myself and am perfectly self-aware and operate from an altruistic, enlightened perch of mind. I'm fully-formed. I'm worried about you guys.

We cannot undo -- how long have humans existed? -- 250,000 years of bias in a single month, no. When exclusionary workplace policies are enacted or insensitive comments made, we can think about the 37.5 disabled people in our lives and how we can better serve them as their colleague or friend (or lover, I don't know what you're up to). Injecting insulin or attending physical therapy does not make someone less interested in life, less enthusiastic to participate. We just need a little help getting there.

Margaret Mead was an anthropologist in the 1920s. She spent a lot of time studying the peoples of Oceania, and later served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Late in her career, a student asked her what the earliest sign of human civilization was. Mead said, " A healed femur."

The femur is the longest bone in the body, running all the way from hip to knee. Without modern medicine -- which our ancient ancestors, notably, did not have -- it takes six weeks of rest for a broken femur to heal. No living creature in the animal kingdom can survive six weeks with a broken leg: They are unable to hunt, search for water, or outrun brown bears. A broken leg is one fractured foot in the grave. A healed femur is evidence that someone cared for the injured. Someone secured the wound, carried them to safety, did the hunting and the gathering, and offered companionship until the injury mended.

"Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts."

So, yes. Let's celebrate every little thing.

-- dottie

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