From ancient Greece, to eugenics to Aktion T4 to Telethon, how media contributed to amplify the stigma of persons with disabilities
The Ruderman Family Foundation published a report in March 2016 that found that disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers in the USA. This shocking number reflects decades of a stigmatized image buit in the population's minds about people with disabilities. Read more about the report.
Eugenics from Greek eugenes "well-born" or "good race", is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population. It is a social philosophy advocating the improvement of human genetic traits through the promotion of higher rates of sexual reproduction for people with desired traits (positive eugenics), or reduced rates of sexual reproduction and sterilization of people with less-desired or undesired traits (negative eugenics), or both.
The idea of eugenics to produce better human beings has existed at least since Plato suggested selective mating to produce a guardian class.The idea of eugenics to decrease the birth of "inferior human beings" has existed in the USA at least since William Goodell (1829-1894) advocated the castration and spaying of the insane.
So, Nazi Germany was not the first or only country to sterilize people considered "abnormal." Before Hitler, the United States led the world in forced sterilizations. Between 1907 and 1939, more than 30,000 people in twenty-nine states were sterilized, many of them unknowingly or against their will, while they were incarcerated in prisons or institutions for the mentally ill. Nearly half the operations were carried out in California. Advocates of sterilization policies in both Germany and the United States were influenced by eugenics. This sociobiological theory took Charles Darwin's principle of natural selection and applied it to society. Eugenicists believed the human race could be improved by controlled breeding.
The term "eugenics" to describe the modern concept of improving the quality of human beings born into the world was originally developed by Francis Galton. Galton had read his half-cousin Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which sought to explain the development of plant and animal species, and desired to apply it to humans. Galton believed that desirable traits were hereditary based on biographical studies; Darwin strongly disagreed with his interpretation of the book.
In 1883, one year after Darwin's death, Galton gave his research a name: eugenics. Throughout its recent history, eugenics has remained a controversial concept.
Eugenics became an academic discipline at many colleges and universities and received funding from many sources. Organisations formed to win public support, and modify opinion towards responsible eugenic values in parenthood, included the British Eugenics Education Society of 1907, and the American Eugenics Society of 1921. Both sought support from leading clergymen, and modified their message to meet religious ideals.
Three International Eugenics Conferences presented a global venue for eugenists with meetings in 1912 in London, and in 1921 and 1932 in New York City. Eugenic policies were first implemented in the early 1900s in the United States. It has roots in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States. Later, in the 1920s and 30s, the eugenic policy of sterilizing certain mental patients was implemented in other countries, including Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Sweden.
Such programs often included both "positive" and "negative" measures. It was considered a positive measure, for instance, encouraging individuals deemed particularly "fit" to reproduce, like the "Fitter Family Contests", the first one held in Kansas, in 1920, where a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. "Negative" measures would be marriage prohibitions and forced sterilization of people deemed unfit for reproduction. People deemed unfit to reproduce often included people with mental or physical disabilities, people who scored in the low ranges of different IQ tests, criminals and deviants, and members of disfavored minority groups.
Disability persons in the Holocaust
It is not widely publicly aknowledged, but persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities was the first group to be singled out for systematic murder by the Nazis. It is estimated that around 300,000 individuals were executed by the end of the II World War under a program known as “operation T4.”
Yet, they were the last ones to be honoured with a Monument built in 2014 in Berlin. Few of the doctors involved in the operation were convicted and families have never been eligible for any form of postwar compensation. “The stigmatization of people with psychological illnesses and intellectual disabilities did not end after 1945, which is certainly a reason why the public acknowledgment of these crimes has remained so difficult to this day,” said Gerrit Hohendorf, a historian at the Technical University of Munich involved in research for the memorial.
Disability and Propaganda
“Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position.
As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience.
Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented.
The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political agenda. Propaganda can be used as a form of political warfare.” Wikipedia
March 1914. Exhibition of the Reichsausschuss für Volksgesundheit (Reich Committee for National Health)
“Three-year old boy, deaf, crippled and completely idiotic. The nursing costs amounting to 8 Marks a day”,
Newspaper Article 1939.
“You have the duty to be healthy for the nation and the state”
Adolf Hitler, “Mein Kampf”, Vol. 1, Chapter 3
“It [Christian Social Party] recognized the value of large-scale propaganda and was a virtuoso in influencing the psychological instincts of the broad masses of its adherents.”
“The Nazis claimed that the existence of disabled people weakened society’s ability to operate efficiently and that the social and economic problems Germany suffered in the 1920s and 30s were partly caused by the burden of supporting disabled people.”
Nazi propaganda slide contrasting how far 5.50 German Marks will go. The cost of feeding one person with a hereditary disease for one day is the same as it would cost to feed an entire family of healthy Germans.
Selling Murder: The Killing Films of the Third Reich, by Michael Burleigh
Produced for Channel 4, UK, historian Michael Burleigh's documentary reveals the brain wash campaign engendered by the nazi to convince the german population of eugenistic procedures: "snuff movies" made by Nazi "euthanasacrats".
The Third Reich's Racial and Political Office, commissioned a comercial studio to produce the film "Victims of the Past", that, by Hitler's direct orders was shown in the 5,000 german cinemas. The documentary's message is that only the fit and strong should live. It portrayed persons with disabilities as unproductive, living meaningless lives that cost a lot to society. Furthermore, they were depicted as a genetic threat to the nation and there was a call for their compulsory sterilisation.
The film "The Inheritance", made the idea of killing even more explicity, with shocking images of people in asylums. The message is clear: So called weak, should be eliminated. All the films concluded with a rousing overview of the arian healthy national community. In 1939, Hitler authorized the killing of children with disabilities. The episode became known as the first "state-sponsored euthanasia". Later on, this was extended to adults with disabilities, as well as children.
"Existence without life", was another propaganda film meant to justify euthanasia. The script demanded that demonicly mad faces arise from the scene, like spectrums. Sharp underneath lighting to make the people appear grotesque and in interviews they would appear talking nonsense, to suggest an inner madness. It concludes that it is unatural and intolerable in terms of higher morality that young generations of health people shoulf grow old caring for the incurably mad and idiotic, an existence without life, convincing the audience murder would be merciful.
After World War II
The eugenics movement became negatively associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust when many of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials attempted to justify their human rights abuses by claiming there was little difference between the Nazi eugenics programs and the US eugenics programs. In the decades following World War II, with the institution of human rights, many countries gradually abandoned eugenics policies, although some Western countries, among them the United States, continued to carry out forced sterilizations.
Since the 1980s and 1990s when new assisted reproductive technology procedures became available, such as gestational surrogacy (available since 1985), preimplantation genetic diagnosis (available since 1989) and cytoplasmic transfer (first performed in 1996), fear about a possible future revival of eugenics and a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor has emerged.
A major criticism of eugenics policies is that, regardless of whether "negative" or "positive" policies are used, they are vulnerable to abuse because the criteria of selection are determined by whichever group is in political power. Furthermore, negative eugenics in particular is considered by many to be a violation of basic human rights, which include the right to reproduction. Another criticism is that eugenic policies eventually lead to a loss of genetic diversity, resulting in inbreeding depression instead due to a low genetic variation.
Translation: 60,000 Reich marks. What this person suffering from is hereditary defects costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Comrade, that is your money too.
Translation: “Mentally ill Negro (English) 16 years in an institution costing 35,00
A poster showing the belief that the “inferiority traits” are passed on more easily than “high value traits”.
Residents in an asylum. Translation: “Life only as a burden”.
Pushing limits: disability as an unexpected gift
Telethons: Spectacle, Disability, and the Business of Charity
JULY 1ST 2016
This year, a San Francisco Bay Area radio station, KPFA, will offer a scholarly book as a gift in its July 2016 pledge drive. Sure, these pleas for listener contributions often give away books, along with the iconic tote bags and baseball caps. But this particular book is not the usual token of appreciation.
Ironically, Paul K. Longmore’s, Telethons: Spectacle, Disability, and the Business of Charity exposes the problematic history of fundraising and charitable giving. In fact, the book–and the gift– push us to look at the real damage that’s done when pathetic and tragic images of disabled people are used to raise money.
A film such as the recently-released “Me Before You” that celebrates a disabled man taking his life to unburden his non-disabled personal care assistant isn’t about someone’s choice to end his life; it’s actually an example of having too few choices for how to think about disability. We’ve been brainwashed by programs such as the pity-inducing telethons which, because of their monopoly for over a half-century, eclipsed other stories, other images, other possibilities for living as a person with a disability.
In their heyday, everyone knew of the telethons that dominated American television for a half century. Over the years, they slowly faded away from popular culture until the last one aired with barely a whimper in 2015.
A portmanteau of “television” and “marathon,” telethons first took root in the 1950s, primarily to raise money for disability-related charities. Initially, these over-the-top, cheesy variety shows were local and lasted just a few hours. But quickly they grew into a national phenomenon that sometimes ran nonstop for over 40 hours (remember, only a few channels and no Internet!).
Despite kitschy programming, telethons were serious (big) business for disability-related charities such as March of Dimes, American Arthritis Foundation, United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), Easter Seals, and Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Among other things, they influenced how Americans thought about generosity, corporations, healthcare, and disability.
To be sure, thanks to the billions of dollars they raised, telethons genuinely helped some people. For example, they made it possible for someone to get a wheelchair when they couldn’t afford one, attend summer camp, and of course, helped fund medical research. And they put people with disabilities, long hidden away at home, in public in ways unprecedented in history. Indeed, thanks to the programs, many people with disabilities discovered other people like them for the first time.
But the good was far outweighed by the toll it took on disabled people. The organizations raised this badly needed money by playing on viewer’s emotions to show disability as horrific and creepy, as in this video where a man plays the part of a stalker. Meanwhile, people with disabilities were cast as helpless and pathetic victims of tragedy. Taking a page right out of Victorian sentimental literature (think Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and other tales of woeful afflictions), children and their families made desperate pleas to viewers. Or they were heroic, brave overcomers who did everything they could to prove they weren’t really disabled. Whether victims or heroes, people with disabilities had no voice other than to reinforce messages of the able-bodied hosts and celebrities who depended upon disabled people to be victims of tragedy.
Since viewers never got to meet disabled people who thrived and actually lived full lives, it seemed perfectly okay to help fund medical research that would eliminate them, all of them. Equally problematic was the unrealistic goal of curing all disability, and the reality that people with disabilities would always be part of even the most modern societies. Put another way, the programs left little room for disabled people who would go on living, often even happy with their lives.
Indeed, watching the programs you’d wonder if many disabled people ever grew up. This was because disabled children proved effective fundraising tools, to the point that they became part of the entertainment as they struggled to walk across the stage to much applause. Years later, some recalled their crutches being taken away so that their struggles appeared even harder to the spell-bound audiences. Many remembered hosts smiling down on them as they heard parents and others exclaim how hard they made life for everyone.
The issue of course isn’t that people need help that generous souls can and do provide—it’s more how that help is awakened, what images media trot out to reinforce existing prejudices against disabled people. Without positive examples of individuals thriving and shaping their world, little wonder that the protagonist in “Me Before You” would decide to end his life and that viewers would applaud this as death with dignity.
But change is in the air. Even if mainstream media continues to promote films like “Me Before You”, social media offers more options. Campaigns such as “This is What Disability Looks Like” on Facebook and #SayTheWord on twitter promote complex, interesting, unexpected views of disabled people from a disability perspective. Meanwhile, university programs and courses and grassroots film festivals question how people with disabilities have been and can be represented. There are also calls for seeing disabled people as a political constituency as well as Crip the Vote.
The pledge gift of a book about telethons from KPFA offers an example of this new thinking pushing through and pushing back. What sweet irony to learn a book that exposes how people with disabilities are exploited for fundraising will help keep “Pushing Limits,” a radio show run by and for people with disabilities, on the air. In this knowing wink among fighters for social justice there’s something much bigger: it’s a fiendishly subversive protest not with bullhorns and signs, but with lifted finger at a whole system that sacrificed dignity in the name of charity.
Catherine Kudlick is Professor of History and Director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University. She oversaw completion of Paul Longmore’s posthumously published book, Telethons: Spectacle, Disability, and the Business of Charity.
Media Coverage of Law Enforcement use of Force and Disability - March 2016
For a searchable database of all 2013-2015 news coverage of police violence involving persons with disabilities, click here.
Disability is the missing word in media coverage of police violence.
Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. Disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated. The media is ignoring the disability component of these stories, or, worse, is telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism.
When we leave disability out of the conversation or only consider it as an individual medical problem, we miss the ways in which disability intersects with other factors that often lead to police violence. Conversely, when we include disability at the intersection of parallel social issues, we come to understand the issues better, and new solutions emerge.
Disability intersects with other factors such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, to magnify degrees of marginalization and increase the risk of violence. When the media ignores or mishandles a major factor, as we contend they generally do with disability, it becomes harder to effect change.
This white paper focuses on the three years of media coverage of police violence and disability since the death of a young man with Down syndrome, named Ethan Saylor, in January 2013. After reviewing media coverage of eight selected cases of police violence against individuals with disabilities, the paper reveals the following patterns in the overall data:
Disability goes unmentioned or is listed as an attribute without context.
An impairment is used to evoke pity or sympathy for the victim.
A medical condition or “mental illness” is used to blame victims for their deaths.
In rare instances, we have identified thoughtful examinations of disability from within its social context that reveal the intersecting forces that lead to dangerous use-of-force incidents. Such stories point the way to better models for policing in the future.
We conclude by proposing best practices for reporting on disability and police violence.
How often do American police use force against disabled civilians? No one knows because we lack comprehensive data sets. Currently, there is no legal requirement for local, state or federal law enforcement agencies to aggregate or collect the number, type, and result of violent incidents that occur between police officers and disabled people. From a purely practical standpoint, those who seek to track, monitor, and/or analyze trends related to police violence and disability are limited to collecting the data themselves from print and online media coverage.
From individual cases to a broad analysis of media representation of incidents of police violence against disabled people, we have compiled and summarized media coverage of stories about police violence and disability by year, organized the stories into various categories, and offered brief commentary on a few examples.
Our review and analysis reflects the patterns of media coverage on issues related to disability and police violence. Generally speaking, reporting on police violence against disabled people includes the date of the incident along with specific details about when and where the event occurred. Using this as our starting point, we added the reactions of law enforcement agencies and community responses to allegations of police violence as reported wherever possible.
We close by offering some ideas for “best practices” that journalists might consider when reporting cases linking police violence and disability.
As an addendum to this white paper, we have prepared an online spreadsheet which can be searched by name, date, state, and disability.
Twenty-five years after the U. S. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, notions of disability continue to evolve. An increasingly powerful set of concepts, they push us to redefine how to build an inclusive society that is accessible to all.
When disabled Americans get killed and their stories are lost or segregated from each other in the media, we miss an opportunity to learn from tragedies, identify patterns, and push for necessary reforms.
Disability rights are civil rights. Disability rights are human rights and disability justice is intersectional.
The needs of disabled people aren’t special. There is nothing special about not wanting to be shot.
What disabled people seek are the same things (employment, education, access, consideration, respect, etc.) that non-disabled people likewise desire. The obstacles faced by disabled people, though, too often go unseen. The language used to report issues that confront disabled people—especially issues linked to injury and death—should reflect that disparate reality.
How To Be Disabled, According to Stock Photography