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2.1: Introduction

  • Page ID
    194576
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    Disability studies views disability in general as a social construct. Rather than one universal experience of disability, this view acknowledges that disabled people have different experiences across time and cultures, and ideas about what disability means and who is disabled are defined by humans. Disability studies also recognizes a difference between impairment, or body-mind difference, and disability.

    The same concepts apply when we talk about developmental disability. People can have impairments in their bodies and brains. For instance, a person may communicate nonverbally. A person may have seizures. A person may process the world in a way that makes reading harder. Calling developmental disability “social constructed” does not mean that all of our bodies are the same. It is does not mean that all of our minds are the same. We should not ignore differences. We can still talk about how impairments can be difficult for people to experience. However, it is our society that makes meaning from difference. Our society values or devalues differences. Our society creates diagnoses like autism, epilepsy, and dyslexia. By requiring reading, prioritizing talking over other communication, or allowing strobe lights and other seizure triggers, society disables people with specific impairments.

    Who is viewed as having a disability, and how does this shift throughout time? Thomas Armstrong argues that developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, and mental health disabilities are defined by the societies and eras in which we live. He writes, “No brain exists in a social vacuum. Each brain functions in a specific cultural setting and at a particular historical period that defines its level of competence” (2010, p. 15). People with the same brain differences are regarded completely differently dependent on the social context. The places and times we live in make things easier or harder for people with developmental disabilities. Armstrong posits that “being at the right place at the right time seems to be critical in terms of defining whether you’ll be regarded as gifted or disabled” (p. 15).

    Colored etching of Saint Valentine blessing a man with epilepsy. The background shows a country seen with a church.

    People with developmental disability were treated differently according to time, culture, and understanding of disability. Here, a man with epilepsy is blessed by Saint Valentine.

    Saint Valentine blessing an epileptic. Colored etching. Wellcome CollectionCC BY

    Disability historian Kim Nielsen (2012) notes that the concept of disability changed throughout American history. The idea of what “disability” meant was not the same. Before Europeans colonized North America, some indigenous people viewed individuals with disabilities differently than we do today: “A young man with a cognitive impairment might be an excellent water carrier. That was his gift. If the community required water, and if he provided it well, he lived as a valued community member with no stigma” (2012, p. 3). People with what we now call “developmental disabilities” were included in the community. Often, they were not viewed negatively. Nielsen explains, “Most indigenous communities did not link deafness, or what we now consider cognitive disabilities, or the shaking bodies of cerebral palsy, with stigma or incompetency” (2012, p. 4). Once European settlers began colonizing North America, they brought disease and violence. War and illness shifted resources among groups and changed group values. These changes impacted disabled people. The same people who were included in their communities might not have a place anymore. Nielsen explains that suddenly, for people with impairments including what we now call developmental disability, “Though they may have possessed excellent storytelling or basket-making skills, wisdom, the ability to nurture children, these things meant little in the face of overwhelming communal stress” (2012, p. 18). In other words, colonialism brought disease and war. New and dangerous conditions made disabled people less valuable to the group, less likely to be a part of the group, and more likely to die.

    European colonists brought different views of people with developmental disability. Kim Nielson explains that in the 1600s, people with some physical impairments could be accepted because they participated in work. At the same time, “those that today we would categorize as having psychological and cognitive disabilities attracted substantial policy and legislative attention by Europeans attempting to establish social order, capitalist trade networks, and government in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century North America” (Nielson, 2012, p. 20). Europeans made laws and policies that impacted disabled people’s lives. In Colonial America, some people with developmental disability and psychiatric disability were sent to institutions like almshouses and asylums, while others lived in the community or were locked away at home. Nielson explains, “The decades surrounding the American Revolution were a period of transition for those with mental and cognitive disabilities, in which some were referred to experts outside the family and some were not” (p.38). Nielson sees this as a shift toward the medical model of disability, in which disability is seen as an individual problem that requires medical intervention. People started turning to doctors to help them understand their family members’ disabilities.

    Disabled people were not the only ones impacted by negative ideas about disability. People of color, women, immigrants, and people now considered LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and asexual) were impacted by ableism and the medical model of disability. The concept of feeble-mindedness was misused to control and oppress marginalized people like woman and people of color. Ableism is structural discrimination against disabled people. Ableism shares roots with other oppressions, like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. Nielson notes, “The racist ideology of slavery held that Africans brought to North America were by definition disabled. Slaveholders and apologists for slavery used Africans’ supposed inherent mental and physical inferiority, their supposed abnormal and abhorrent bodies, to legitimize slavery” (p. 42). Slavery was inhumane and operated through racism. Slavery also relied on negative ideas about disability. As medicine took hold in the 1800s, “medical expertise regarding women’s biological deficiencies buttressed the exclusion of white women from higher education, voting, and property ownership” (Nielson, 2012, p. 66). So medical model disability language was used to deny women’s rights. People today considered LGBTQIA were “diagnosed as sexual perverts” and were deported, sterilized, and institutionalized (Nielson, 2012, p. 115).  Indigenous people were mistreated, killed, and barred from citizenship, while potential immigrants were scrutinized for signs of disability. During the time between the American Revolution and the Civil War, “Disability, as a concept, was used to justify legally established inequalities” (Nielson, 2012, p. 50).

    Samuel Gridley Howe believed people with developmental disability could learn and work, and helped establish schools, including those that served students with developmental disability (Nielson, 2012, pp. 67-68). Asylums were segregated racially. Institutionalized people of color and indigenous people received worse treatment (Nielson, 2012, p. 92). Institutions exposed disabled people to extreme abuse and neglect. People with developmental disability were among the most targeted for institutionalization.

    The late 1800s to the early 1900s was when institutions really became central to the plight of people with developmental disability. Starting in the mid-1800s, children and adults with developmental disability were sent to “training schools,” “colonies,” and “institutions for the feeble-minded” (Jirik, 2014). There were smaller private institutions, as well as an influx of large public institutions. Katrina Jirik (2014) explains that “As the laws changed, allowing lifetime commitment to the institutions,” they went from educating people who weren’t allowed in public schools due to disability to calling it “vocational training” to use inmates for “the labor needed to run the institution” (2014).   Institutions became places where people were warehoused for their whole lives. People with developmental disability faced neglect, abuse, medical experimentation, and death in institutions across America.


    This page titled 2.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Emily Brooks via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.