ep. 43 Disability History: A Tale of Contradictions

Disability is part of our culture, our families, our friends, and our history. Living in a society that is built for able-bodied people doesn’t allow for much education and awareness around disability within the United States. But disability can be tracked through history all the way back to ancient times. And throughout the last two thousand years, the treatment and laws surrounding communities with disabilities have always been…well… full of contradictions. Society can’t seem to decide if they want to provide accommodations and resources for these communities or treat people with a disability differently. Join us in this episode to learn more about key points in disability history and then learn about the state of disability today!

Feminist Corner:

  • What are examples of how society can change in order to better accommodate people with disabilities? 
  • As a future healthcare provider, what do you find as an important takeaway from this history?

Listen to the episode, discuss these questions with friends and family, let us know what you think!

Show Notes:

In this episode, we are talking about disability history!

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act defines disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Disability can take shape in many different forms and is different for every person

There are two models of disability.

  • The medical model views disability as a problem within the person that requires some type of fixing. Medicine tries to ‘fix’ people in this idea so disabled persons will go through rehab, medications, and use medical devices in order to make their body more like someone who is abled. 
  •  The social model of disability flips the script entirely. Instead of putting the disability on the body, it puts it on society. The body is not what causes someone to be disabled, it is how society is structured and operated that creates disability for certain people. 

Disability in History 

  • In Greece, the Olympian God Hephaistos was born with a congenital defect and had a crippled leg and foot
  • Roman society had laws that required disabled babies to be murdered but provided advocates for D/deaf individuals in courts of law. 
  • In the middle ages, Leprosy was a common form of disability and separate communities and homes were created for individuals with this condition.
  • In the 1800s/1900s, circuses paraded people with disabilities around the world while also providing a source of work and income for them. 
  • After the World Wars, disability awareness grew. National organizations were created, schools were built, and laws were passed. 

Disability Today 

  • According to the CDC, 61 million adults in the US have a disability, that is a little more than ¼ of the United States.
  •  ⅖ of people with a disability are over the age of 65,, ¼ are women, and ⅖ are non – hispanic American indians/Alaskan natives.
  • According to a study by the Havard TH Chan School of public health, almost two-thirds (62%) of those with serious illness reported living with a long-term disability, with significant gaps in obesity, smoking, heart disease, and diabetes. 
  • Women with disabilities are 3x more likely than men with disabilities to be illiterate, 2x more likely to be unemployed, and 3x more likely to have unmet healthcare needs.


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Alexandra Morris | August 30, 2021. (n.d.). Blog: A brief guide to disability terminology and theory in ancient world studies. Society for Classical Studies. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://classicalstudies.org/scs-blog/alexandra-morris/blog-brief-guide-disability-terminology-and-theory-ancient-world-studies

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, September 16). Disability impacts all of us infographic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html

The challenges of living with a disability in America, and how serious illness can add to them. Commonwealth Fund. (2019, April 16). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/fund-reports/2019/apr/challenges-living-disability-america-and-how-serious-illness-can

Facts and figures: Women and girls with disabilities. UN Women – Headquarters. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/women-and-girls-with-disabilities/facts-and-figures

The king’s fools – disability in the tudor court. Historic England. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1485-1660/disability-in-the-tudor-court/

The right to education – the growth of the ‘special’ School for Children with Disabilities. Historic England. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1914-1945/the-right-to-education/

Survival of the fittest? experiencing disability in antiquity. Warwick Globalist. (2016, January 14). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from http://warwickglobalist.com/2015/11/11/survival-of-the-fittest-experiencing-disability-in-antiquity/arts-culture/

The time of leprosy: 11th century to 14th century. Historic England. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://historicengland.org.uk/research/inclusive-heritage/disability-history/1050-1485/time-of-leprosy/

U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Disability history: The disability rights movement (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.nps.gov/articles/disabilityhistoryrightsmovement.htm

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, October 18). Hephaestus. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hephaestus

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, September 12). Disability in ancient Rome. Wikipedia. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disability_in_ancient_Rome#In_Roman_cultureWomen and girls with disabilities. UN Women – Headquarters. (n.d.). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/women-and-girls-with-disabilities

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