Disability then and now
Posted on June 14, 2014, Saturday
GERMAN attorney Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche co-authored the book ‘Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Living’ in 1920. They argued for the killing of people who were mentally ill and those with incurable conditions. Their work was to become the precursor to the genocide of disabled people by the Nazis.
In 1933, the Third Reich enacted the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, six months after Adolf Hitler was named chancellor. An estimated 400,000 people with hereditary, intellectual and congenital impairments were forcefully sterilised under this ruling to prevent them from producing `inferior’ children.
This practice of eugenics, the act of weeding out people judged to have genetic flaws, was to ensure the purity of the Aryan master race gene pool. The Nazis embraced this ideology with the purpose of creating a superior race to eventually rule the world.
The regime ran propaganda campaigns against disabled people by describing them as having lives unworthy of living. Films were produced to show the great disadvantages they faced in their lives. Literatures were created with the intention of swaying public opinion by illustrating the massive cost required to support one blind or deaf child.
They were deemed ‘useless eaters’ who consumed valuable resources without contributing anything useful in return. Their lives were seen as meaningless and imposing a heavy burden on their families and society. Euthanasia was promoted as the `gentle death’ to end the sufferings.
Killings of disabled children and adults began in 1939 by lethal injections, starvation or in gas chambers disguised as shower rooms. By the end of World War II in 1945, approximately 270,000 disabled people were murdered with these methods before the Nazis were defeated.
The United Nations subsequently defined and refined the specific rights all human beings are inherently entitled to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948.
These rights were further expanded and protected under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that was adopted by the General Assembly in 2006. This international rights treaty now has 158 signatories and 147 parties.
We have come a long way since. Nonetheless, after all these years, despite the acceptance of the international instruments on rights, negative attitudes towards disability still persist although these are unrelated to the writings of Binding and Hoche, or Nazi ideologies. They are natural reactions from people who are unfamiliar with disabled people.
Living with severe impairments is considered a fate worse than death. This line of thinking is often employed in campaigns against drunk driving. Images of people with severe impairments were used to illustrate that driving in a state of inebriation can result in devastating consequences.
Contrary to popular belief, we are not suicidal. We value life. We are not trapped in a fate that is worse than death. True, we struggle with environmental and attitudinal barriers every day, and put in 200 per cent effort to make something of our lives. We do what we have to do to move on in life.
Another prevailing perception is that disabled people are burdens to their families and society. The notion of burden is the cost we place on the inconvenience we think other people have to suffer to provide for our needs.
In the civilised society that we live in, one that has achieved an advanced state of social, cultural and technological development, the welfare of each member should ideally be provided for according to their needs and the capabilities of the society as a collective.
People with severe impairments in some developed countries are given all the support they require to live independently in their communities. Their participation and inclusion are valued and seen as a right rather than a burden. They are given equal opportunities to become productive and contribute meaningfully back. Therefore, the notion of burden is fallacious to a certain extent in this context.
Lastly, cost has often been used as a factor to deny the provision of accessible facilities and support services. The logic proffered is that it does not make economical sense to invest in facilities that is going to be used by only a small segment of society. Governments and private entities giving such excuses are shirking their social responsibilities in contravention of international conventions and domestic disability rights legislations and open themselves to discrimination lawsuits.
The more we change the more we stay the same. These issues are similar but have evolved into a different form. While there is little chance for the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis to be repeated in this era, I have a fear that we are faced with another problem unique to our present time.
With the rapid advancement of robotic technology and stem cell therapy, there is a tendency for many disabled people to progressively lean towards that direction while placing less emphasis on advocating for the removal of barriers.
It is undeniable these innovations can improve function and mobility. Still, they are experimental and expensive, their cost beyond the affordability of most disabled people. Moreover, not everyone can benefit from them. Therefore, it is crucial to ensure that the movement to push for accessibility and inclusion continue unabated and not allow it to be overshadowed by progress in these other fields.