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Changing Attitudes to Disability



Attitudes to disability have come a long way but may still have some way to go. There has been definite progress in terms of support for the disabled. However, people always complain about disabled benefits, and there are many who still today fail to understand why particularly disabled people might need things to be a certain way.

The story of how we got to where we are today is an interesting one, though, and the future of how society treats its disabled members looks like it will become an equally exciting tale.

Early Attitudes

The attitudes of early civilizations like the Spartans towards disabled people are well documented; it was a hard life at best if you were disabled any time before the 20th century. Help would be limited to physical aids, mostly wooden crutches and supports.

Mental illnesses and disabilities, or problems with seeing and hearing, were mostly either ignored or mocked. It seemed as though there were some things a man could not do anything about.

“An Ingenious Way to Live”

The early modern age and industrial revolution completely changed the way people saw disabilities. Where once the disabled were looked on with superstitious fear of helpless pity, the spread of science and industrial know-how meant that the average post-enlightenment Victorian no longer saw disability as a devastating blow. Limitation was no longer something terminal to be dismayed at, but a mere obstacle to be overcome by the ingenious application of science.

Science could fix everything the Enlightenment said.

Neil Marcus, a disabled artist, and actor describes the progression aptly: “Disability is not a ‘brave struggle’ or ‘courage in the face of adversity’… disability is an art. It’s an ingenious way to live.”

It was during this period that wheelchairs became common. Towards the end of the great industrial age, experiments like “Exploring Optophone” (a device used by the blind to scan text) also started to become a more regular sight.

Augmentation, Not Substitution

This period marked the beginning of a progression towards augmenting the abilities of man, not merely attempting to replicate them.

Nowadays, perfectly healthy people can use mobility scooters or cyborg glasses and reasonably expect to get some benefit out of them.

Movements like post-humanism and trans-humanism seek to enhance our capabilities further, turning us into real cyborgs and rejecting any human element of our lives. So far, they’ve achieved little success.

But could products initially designed to help the disabled turn humans into a race of uber-enhanced superheroes?

Is this the future?