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Disability and genocide

cds4's picture


I know that ‘genocide’ is not a word that is typically thrown around when discussing the history of disability in the United States. However, it is a word that kept popping into my mind during this reading. Genocides are often associated with a large mass killing, however in order for an event to be classified as a genocide, it needs to transcend physical abuse. According to Raphael Lemkin, founder of the Genocide Convention, the goal of a genocide is the “disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, national feeling, religion, and economic existence of a group”. I know a lot of historians would hesitate to label the treatment of individuals with disabilities in America as a genocide, however I think that we can at least acknowledge that it was/is genocidal.

One of the first steps of a genocide is the the prohibition of the victim group’s language, an action taken by the United States when oralism began to gain prevalence. History and culture are embodied in language so it is impossible to force a community to adopt a new language without simultaneously forcing them to denounce the symbolism present within their native form of communication. Additionally, having an individual communicate via a form their not comfortable with differentiates that individual from the rest of society and marks them as an outsider.
Beyond individual isolation via language, genocide victim groups are forcibly removed from public observation. During the Ukraine famine, Stalin enacted boarder controls, essentially preventing any contact between the Russian public and Ukraine. A similar action was taken with individuals with disabilities in America, individuals were banned from public places and instititutions were established to separate individuals with disabilities from the rest of society. This separation not only dehumanizes the victim, but prevents the perpetrators from facing public criticism for their actions.

Within these institutions, victims faced the physical abuse that is most commonly associated with genocides; they were beaten, starved, and drugged. Individuals with disabilities who didn’t even live in these institutions also faced the physical aggression of society from forced sterilization programs and ablist physicians. All these tactics were used as a tool for suppression and extermination.

Additionally, institutions designed to repress individuals with disabilities perpetuated spiritual erosion. Native Americans, who were labeled as disabled and institutionalized because they fought assimilation, had their hair cut, an action akin to spiritual death. Even non-Native American patients faced religious dissolution by simply being told that they didn’t have a place in the God-created society.