UK Disability History Month coordinator Richard Rieser writes about this year’s theme: language and disability
Schools and colleges should now be planning what they will do in this year’s Disability History Month (22nd November – 22nd December, though you can do work before and after). Let us know your events.
34% of disabled Year 9 students compared to 26% of non disabled students, experience bullying through name calling, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Government. The ‘othering’ process that starts with name calling and devalues the disabled victim leads to social exclusion (21%), threats of violence (26%) and experience of actual violence (24%) – more than double that experienced by non-disabled students (11%). Schools have statutory duties to eliminate bullying. So examining the roots of disablist and pejorative language is an essential part of creating a climate of disability equality in your school or college. We have worked with the Anti Bullying Alliance to produce a whole range of resources to enable teachers to challenge language based disablist bullying.
Historically disablist language is common. In William Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, Scene I, Act I, Gloucester’s first speech before Richard was King is perhaps the most famous speech about the impacts of impairment on character, reinforcing the link between evil and disability.
“…Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;”
This followed Sir Thomas Moore’s much earlier account of “The Life and Death of Richard III”. Moore’s account was written to curry favour with Henry VIII, who felt very insecure as King, because his father, Henry VII, had claimed the crown having killed Richard III in the battle of Bosworth, so usurping or stealing the crown. Moore therefore embellished history and added to Richard’s ‘hunchback’ or scoliosis, (now proven with the recent discovery of his skeleton in a Leicestershire car park), a ‘lame leg’ and ‘withered arm’ (both made-up) and dubiously directly linked Richard to the murder of his brother, the Princes in the Tower and several others which suited Tudor propaganda. Shakespeare produced magnificent literature in Richard, who is contradictory, both an evil monster /murderer and a magnetic personality, attractive to women.
Throughout history, human physical and mental differences have been described in language and given meaning based on the thinking of the day, reinforcing powerful stereotypes which stretch down the years and still influence thinking about disabled people. This is the theme of UK Disability History Month Autumn 2016. We will focus on the language and words used to describe disabled people over time. What were the historic attitudes and ideas which led to this language? This includes literature, theatre, history, oral history, coverage in the newspapers and other print media. Through the lens of language we will seek to gain a greater understanding of our oppression in the past and now. Through human rights and the social model approach to disability, barriers can be removed and attitudes changed.
Lame today is used by some young people to mean something that is good, being a reversal of the meaning not smart or impressive. In Shakespeare’s time it meant both having an injured foot/leg, make walking difficult and not strong , good or effective. Overall this word is negative, sad and not a good experience. Halt was a word in common use then, meaning the same as lame, as was cripple, also meaning to move slowly, to be permanently injured or have no power. The polarity of good and evil/ beautiful and unsightly in this language is found right across all languages and is a major contributor to the devaluation of disabled people. Generally, disabled people of that period would have had families, worked and not been distinguished from the mass of common people, unless severely impaired. Those not looked after by their community would have begged, though this became outlawed and the first Poor Law (1601) meant they had to stay in their local area and seek support from the parish. So the impact of the play “Richard III” (1592) would have been dramatically strong. At a time when people generally believed in witchcraft and tangible forces of evil, it made a powerful link between disability and evil.
As part of this year’s UKDHM we have worked with the Open University and Access All Areas to produce a pack for schools around the film on the life of Mabel Cooper. Mabel was placed in a long stay hospital for the ‘mentally deficient’ at the age of four and stayed there more than thirty years. When eventually released under care in the community, she became a major advocate for people with learning difficulties and a founder of People First. The pack has developed activities for students from KS2-5 in English, drama, history, science, geography and PHSE.
Following Darwin’s publication of The Origin of Species (1865), his cousin Frances Galton and many others thought they could speed up natural selection of human beings by stopping ‘inferior’ people from having children. This movement, eugenics, particularly focused on those they called ‘feeble-minded’, who could pass as part of the general population, but who carried the characteristics of mental deficiency, crime, immorality and destitution which could be passed onto to their children. Most people with more significant mental impairments – the mad, idiots and imbeciles – were already by this time kept in asylums and the workhouse and for those of upper and middle class in private small asylums. Eugenicist Mary Dendy, for instance, worked ceaselessly in Manchester to separate the feeble minded from other children and also adults in the home she opened in Sandlebridge, Cheshire.
In 1902, the Rev. Harold Nelson Burden, chaplain at Horfield Prison, and his wife Katharine, founded the National Institutions for Persons Requiring Care and Control, to care for mentally retarded children and adults. In 1908 they rented the Stoke Park estate, opening the Stoke Park Colony in April 1909. The colony was the first institution certified as a home for mentally retarded patients under the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, the Rev. Burden having been a member of the Royal Commission for inquiry into care of the feeble-minded which led to the Act. The colony was regarded as a leading institution of its type.
The agitation, actions and false thinking of Galton, Dendy and Burden and a small group of other eugenicist activists led to a Royal Commission on Mental Deficiency which was supplied with false scientific evidence by psychologists like Cyril Burt, who provided intelligence tests, and doctors like AF Tredgold, who provided the authoritative text on mental deficiency for the next sixty years. This was followed by more eugenicist fear and propaganda which led to the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 being voted through Parliament with only two votes against. This led to the licensing and shutting away for life of 130,000 people, a growth industry in diagnosis and labelling, and the setting up of over 100 large institutions many of which only began to close in the 1980s to 2000s – many of the children’s facilities just changed their name to special school.
The 1913 Act established the Board of Control for Lunacy and Mental Deficiency to oversee the implementation of provisions for the care and management of four classes of people:
“a) Idiots. Those so deeply defective as to be unable to guard themselves against common physical dangers.
b) Imbeciles. Whose defectiveness does not amount to idiocy, but is so pronounced that they are incapable of managing themselves or their affairs, or, in the case of children, of being taught to do so.
c) Feeble-minded persons. Whose weakness does not amount to imbecility, yet who require care, supervision, or control, for their protection or for the protection of others, or, in the case of children, are incapable of receiving benefit from the instruction in ordinary schools.
d) Moral Imbeciles. Displaying mental weakness coupled with strong vicious or criminal propensities, and on whom punishment has little or no deterrent effect”.
Some of these words, though unacceptable, are still in common use as harassing language, but most young people know nothing of this particularly nasty period of oppression. This year’s UKDHM gives us all an excellent chance to challenge such ignorance and rejoin the struggle for disability equality. The pack will be launched in Parliament at 11am on the 22nd November. UKDHM will launch that evening at 6pm at Kings Place, Kings Cross.