People with Disabilities: Past & Present Perspectives

Instructor: Dana Dance-Schissel

Dana teaches social sciences at the college level and English and psychology at the high school level. She has master's degrees in applied, clinical and community psychology.

Society's treatment and care of the disabled has changed throughout time. This lesson will explore past and present perspectives on people with disabilities and will end with a brief quiz to see what you have learned.

What Does it Mean to be Disabled?

Think about the things you have accomplished in the past few days. Perhaps you went to work or school, hung out with friends, or prepared a meal. These simple daily activities might become much more challenging or even impossible if you became disabled.

A disability is any physical or mental limitation. Disabilities may be present at birth or may emerge later in life as a result of an injury or illness. Some disabilities last a lifetime, while others may be shorter lived.

Physical disabilities limit physical movement. Examples of physical disabilities include loss of a limb, spinal cord injury, or even arthritis. Mental disabilities impair cognitive functioning and may affect things like attention, memory and learning. Examples of mental disabilities include autism and traumatic brain injury. Now that we understand what disabilities are, let's take a closer look at the ways people with disabilities were treated in the past and how they are treated now.

Historical Perspective

When was the last time you had a cold or the flu? Besides feeling terrible, the illness probably affected your daily activities, didn't it? When people are sick with an illness that others may catch, they are usually asked to stay home and away from others who could become infected. If someone is really sick, they may be hospitalized to contain and treat the illness.

Can you imagine separating a person with a disability from others just because they are disabled? Throughout history, this has happened. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that disabilities were similar to contagious illnesses and they institutionalized, or locked their disabled citizens away from the rest of the population.

This treatment of disabled people as outcasts continued throughout much of history. They may have been described as possessed by evil spirits or otherwise flawed in some way. Frequently, opportunities for independence, education, or employment were denied to people with disabilities. Things began to change for the disabled, however, in the twentieth century.

Present Perspective

We've all heard John F. Kennedy's speech calling Americans to ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. His presidency took place in a time of immense social and political change. One of the many important things that Kennedy did was pass a law to protect the rights of people with disabilities.

The Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963 emerged out of John F. Kennedy's desire to protect the disabled. Kennedy's sister was disabled, and he did not agree with the way she or any other disabled person was being treated in society. The law provided assistance and health care to people with disabilities.

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