Disability in children has been around since the dawn of man. Time has not been kind to these children. Different societies have acted differently towards them, but more often than not, these children have not had a pleasant life. Some didn’t even have the opportunity for a life.
In ancient Greece, many of these children were killed or left to fend for themselves in the woods. Some children, who were blind, were often held to a loftier status in the community. For the most part, Greek society did not want these children. The Greek Olympics celebrated the perfect human being, and disabled children were seen as the complete opposite of this perfect physical embodiment. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, told the people if their child was not perfect than they should kill it. Greeks believed a baby was not human until seven days after birth, and babies deemed as less than perfect were slaughtered as a result.
Even the Bible has what can be seen as negative stereotypes of the disabled. The Old Testament book Leviticus has a reference to the disabled as very discriminatory, indicating the disabled can’t take prayer with God or be a priest. Even in the New Testament, in the book of John, Jesus states disability is a punishment from God and he said “Be cured and sin no more.” But for the most part, Jesus taught his disciples to love all children, no matter what they may look like.
During the Roman empire, many children with special needs served as jesters to be mocked and ridiculed in the Roman courts. During the gladiator games at the Roman Coliseum, disabled children would be thrown under horses while dwarfs would fight women and blind gladiators would viciously fight each other to the death. Ironically, Caesar Augustus and Alexander the Great both suffered from epilepsy and were idolized by the people as it was believed they were held in great status from the Gods. The people believed their disabilities allowed them to see visions and the rulers seized these opportunities to lead the people.
After the fall of the Roman empire, Europe plunged into a time period of instability and chaos. Known as the Medieval Times, children with disability were still treated as something less than human. During times of relative stability, these children would stay with their families and work. But during times of plague, these children were seen as evil, and were constantly beaten or murdered by those who blamed them for the plight of society. The act of placing disabled children as court jesters continued during this time period.
Martin Luther, the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, said the following about children with disabilities: “Take the changeling child to the river and drown it.” Female children or women with disabilities were accused of being witches, and many were burned at the stake or murdered. The Renaissance was in full swing, and in 1492, the first “mental institution” opened in England, St. Mary of Bethlehem. Children placed there were treated to horrible and inhumane conditions. It was nicknamed “Bedlam”, and the word bedlam has been used ever since to describe a place like this. For the most part though, families took care of their own, and kept their disabled children at home where they would be safe. Scientific views of life were beginning to slowly replace religious views, and children with disabilities were beginning to be seen differently. All that would soon change.
To Be Continued…