The History of Disabled People

by Jessica Lopez (with help from Eric Prince)

The Disability Pride flag. A black background with blue, yellow, white, red, and green stripes going diagonally at a 135 degree angle.

One in seven people on Earth are disabled in some way (that’s one billion people worldwide).

7 stick figure drawings with blue heads. One of them a person in a wheelchair.

In the United States, one in five people are disabled (that's 60 million people in the US).

5 stick figure drawings with blue-colored heads. One of them is a person in a wheelchair.

Now, you may be wondering to yourself – how is ‘disability’ defined?

Disability is defined as a physical or mental condition that impairs someone's ability to do certain activities.

A disability can be clearly noticeable, like someone who doesn't have hands and feet.

But a disability can also be invisible, like someone with an intellectual disability (for example, Autism Spectrum Disorder).

Obviously, disabilities aren’t a new issue - people have lived with disabilities for all of human history. But, as a culture, we’ve only recently begun to address the needs of people with disabilities. For most of human history, disabled people have, at best, been overlooked, and, at worst, been outright persecuted.

Unfortunately, this history is often just as overlooked. We don't learn about the injustices disabled people have faced throughout history, we don't learn about the groundbreaking activism that changed how we view disability, we don't learn about the social attitudes that can lead to disability discrimination, and we don't learn how disability rights affect everyone.

So, today, we’re going to take a deep look at the history of disabled people.

A Brief History of Disability

Up until the 1800s, disabled people were often considered demonic or cursed.

A painting of 5 beggars, all of whom are on the ground with crutches.
Pieter Bruegel, The Beggars (The Cripples), 1568

Because of these views, disabled people were often a source of embarrassment for families. They didn't know how to care for their disabled family members and, many times, they couldn't afford to care for them (sometimes they just didn't want to). As a result, many disabled people were hidden away from the sight of others or kicked out of the home altogether.

The mid-1800s saw the age of industrialization, an era well-known for its horrible working conditions. There wasn’t much protection for ANYONE, let alone for disabled people.

4 black and white photos of factory workers. Photo 1 has 2 children working a loom. Photos 2 and 3 show 6 people wearing torn clothing working on pipes. Photo 4 shows men, women, and children sorting items in large bins.
Factory working conditions were very poor in general.

Unfortunately, disabled people were hit the hardest. Many were unable to work in manufacturing positions due to their disabilities. And unfortunately, there weren’t many other options out there. So, disabled people often resorted to panhandling on the street to survive.

A magazine cartoon showing beggars panhandling businessmen. In the corner is a drawing of a person speaking to the mayor.
"The Streets of New York - Running the Gauntlet of Horrors" (1879). Caption: 'If you can't remove these people from the street on the score of Charity, do it for Decency's sake'.

This made a lot of non-disabled people resentful. They often felt these panhandling disabled people were lazy, and that they were scamming hard-working people out of their money. A prevalent view arose during this time that disabled people just didn't want to contribute to society (and, unfortunately, this ideology persists today).

In response, cities began 'warning out' people with disabilities. This emerged from the concept that a city had the responsibility to care for its citizens, and if a city didn't want to take responsibility for someone, they had the right to send them away.

'Warning out' disabled people could be done with a city notice saying that a person is not welcome in town, or by 'passing on' a person by loading them into a cart and dropping them off in the next town. Displacement and the jailing of people with disabilities were both extremely common at this time.


But these "solutions" weren’t effective. They were also largely unpopular with socially progressive people. So, an alternative solution was created: Institutionalization.

Institutionalization gained traction by providing disabled people rehabilitation so that, one day, they might be able to assimilate back into regular society (it also provided them a place to live).

Dorothea Dix was a notable figure at this time. During the mid-19th century, Dix created the first generation of state institutions for people with intellectual disabilities and mental health conditions.

A black and white depiction of Dorothea Dix who is a white woman with black hair in a bun. She is wearing a black blouse with a white undershirt.
Dorothea Dix

This was a turning point in American history. People began to support the idea that the government has a specific responsibility to care for vulnerable or disabled people. The era of social reform had arrived.

Because of Dix's lobbying, the government began to fund state institutions. However, the institutions weren’t without their own set of issues.

Inside these institutions, disabled people often faced extremely poor living conditions and experienced high rates of abuse & neglect.

4 black and white photos. Photo 1: Men in an institution wearing overalls and sleeping in chairs. Photo 2: 7 toddlers in a small, white crib in an institution. Photo 3: Multiple people sharing bedframes. There is a person in a wheelchair in the background. Photo 4: A person sitting on a bench and multiple other people on the floor beside them.