Historic attitudes towards people with Learning Disabilities and Epilepsy

Historically, people with learning disabilities and epilepsy have frequently been regarded as legitimate objects for scorn and derision and bullied, abused and persecuted as a result.  Most of the time, they’ve been dependent on the care of their families, as well as on charities of one kind or another but, where this has failed, they’ve been at the mercy of an uncomprehending world, often to disastrous effect.  In Britain, until the late 1960s, most families were persuaded to place their learning disabled child in a medical institution.  Indeed in many societies such people have (and still are) been murdered or simply abandoned as being too challenging, too distressing or too expensive.   Although the lives of most learning disabled people in Britain are better than they’ve ever been, we should not forget the history of persecution, nor the belief systems that made it possible.  Advances are all too easily reversed and we should never forget, as Edmund Burke warned us, that ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.‘

Christianity, it seems, has come up with two contradictory ways of talking about parenting a child with a profound disability.  The first is that he or she is God’s punishment for past misdeeds.  Thus, an American politician, Bob Marshall, Republican Member of the Virginia House of Delegates, has repeatedly claimed that disabled children are God’s punishment to women who had aborted their first pregnancy.  And the devoutly religious, but deeply confused, Glenn Hoddle, the one time manager of the England football team, was sacked when he declared: ‘you and I have been given two hands and two legs and half decent brains.  Some people have not been born like that for a reason; the karma is working from another lifetime.  I have nothing to hide about that. It is not only people with disabilities.  What you sow, you have to reap.’  And there are historic accounts of terrible cruelty and abuse towards people with learning disabilities in various Catholic care homes and institutions in Ireland and elsewhere.

Fundamentalist Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on such pernicious nonsense, however.  The explicitly secular Nazis labelled those with profound disabilities as ‘life unworthy of life’, or ‘useless eaters’, and the persecution, forced sterilization and subsequent murder of perhaps a quarter of a million of such people under the T-4 programme paved the way for the even greater genocide of the European Jews.  More recently, one of the most extreme animal rights philosophers, Peter Singer, a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, argued that human beings who fail to develop the ability to speak are in some ways less than human, on a par with animals.  In Practical Ethics he insisted that ‘killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.  Very often it is not wrong at all’, basing his argument on the relative capacities of animals: ‘If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self consciousness, communication and everything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant.’ 

Closer to home, the UKIP councillor, Colin Brewer, argued that ‘disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down’, while his fellow Kuiper, Geoffrey Clark, called for compulsory abortions of disabled foetuses. And a Tory deputy mayor, amazingly enough a retired GP called Owen Lister, argued that disabled children should be ‘guillotined’, explaining that ‘It's merely a matter of caring for them until they die.  The only difference between a terminally ill patient and a severely handicapped child is time.’ 

Perhaps most shocking of all—because it’s so surprising from such a card-carrying liberal—is Virginia Woolf’s diary entry for 9th January 1915—where she writes that:

"On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles.  The first was a very tall man, just queer enough to look at twice, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; and then one realised that every one in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare.  It was perfectly horrible.  They should certainly be killed."

Woolf, of course, was simply mirroring the common views of the Eugenics Society, whose Chairman, the distinguished biologist Julian Huxley, wrote in 1930:

"What are we going to do?  Every defective man, woman and child is a burden.  Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return."

Many public figures, including birth control pioneers Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, politicians Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, and proud liberals such as H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes and Sidney Webb all supported eugenics.  Thankfully, it has now been dismissed as pseudo-science of the worst kind that, in Britain at least, does little but discredit the speaker.  More recently, the eminent geneticist and proselytising atheist Richard Dawkins, in response to an enquiry from a woman about what to do if she discovered that she was pregnant with a foetus with Down’s Syndrome, replied ‘abort it and try again.  It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.’  He denied that he is a ‘eugenicist’, but it’s hard to understand what he means by the word ‘immoral’ in such a context.

Lower level discrimination exists too.  Research by the leading health and social care provider, Turning Point, showed that a bias against those with learning disabilities is widespread in modern Britain.  The Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities concluded ‘that people are more comfortable interacting with people with physical or sensory impairments in social situations than they are […] with individuals with learning disabilities or mental health conditions’. The consultancy Lemos&Crane produced a devastating report entitled Loneliness+Cruelty about the bullying of people with learning disabilities, and the Papworth Trust has published research showing that 90% of people with learning difficulties have experienced hate crime or bullying, with almost a third saying that it takes place on a daily or weekly basis. And, finally, UNICEF concluded in 2012 that ‘Disability is not the impairment itself, but rather attitudes and environmental barriers that result in disability.  Children with disabilities are often ‘invisible’ to service providers, and they are at greater risk of violence than their non-disabled peers.’  This is all deeply dismaying stuff.