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Keeping the Faith in Humanity

Jan. 4, 2023

When you look at timelines of disability history online, most will start in the early 1800s with the opening of the first school for the deaf. This is followed by the invention of braille and by the mid-1800s the first school for the blind has opened as well. While one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence is said to have suffered from cerebral palsy and wars provided advocacy for newly physically handicapped soldiers, those with neurological problems were still misunderstood outcasts. A few doctors were attempting to identify and differentiate “mental disorders”, but treatment was not on the radar. At the beginning of the 1900s, the first hints of the genetic characteristics of certain disabilities emerged leading to widespread compulsory sterilization of the disabled. Wars continued to produce advocacy and advancements for physically disabled soldiers, but recognition of the impact of war on the brain through trauma and brain injuries stayed unrecognized publicly. In 1932 America elects its first physically disabled President and the mid-1900s bring even more public figures with physical disabilities from diseases that could now be survived. This led to the disabled being included in the Social Securities Act and advancements in the medical treatments for those with physical disabilities. With the mass execution of the disabled and Jewish during WW 2, the world had to face the realities of governments choosing which of their citizens live or die. The last half of the 1900s sees advancements in community access for those with physical disabilities including accessibility standards for buildings and transportation. Mandated access to work with acceptance of professional musicians and actors with physical disabilities. Mandated access to housing, athletics, and education for those with physical disabilities. While IDEA and Medicaid both include provisions for individuals with “mental retardation”, those with neurological problems still suffered through brain damage from lobotomies, inappropriate shock treatment and deplorable conditions in state institutions many of which did not close until the 1980s. It is not until the 1990s that ADA is passed giving civil rights protection to all individuals with disabilities and autism is added as a Special Education Category. The 2000s have brought better research and treatment for those with neurological disabilities, but the fight is far from over. Without continued success and acceptance in all aspects of community life, neurological disabilities won’t be able to make the extraordinary strides achieved by those with physical disabilities. While the first school for individuals with autism was opened almost 150 years after the first school for the deaf, it does not need to take that long for individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities to enjoy many of the rights that individuals with physical disabilities enjoy. Changes in laws give us the opportunity, but they are useless without people insisting on the implementation of those laws on a regular basis. This year we will look at the individuals with autism and other neurological disabilities that are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before them and insisting on full participation in their communities allowing us all to keep our faith in humanity.