Conceptions and attitudes towards disability has changed a lot over the centuries. The conceptions and attitudes were greatly influenced by eugenics. Eugenics is the relationship between scientific information about heredity and social policies. Eugenics was based out of and reinforced by social Darwinism, “survival of the fittest” and inheritance of “undesirable” traits. Eugenics was reflected in scientific, literary, religious, and sociopolitical movements. It spread through mainstream medical and eugenic journals, international meetings, and conferences.
In Nazi Germany, treatment of people with disabilities changed drastically in just a few decades. By the early 20th century there was a mass of pseudo data on the inferiority of people with disabilities. Eugenics was embraced by Hitler and Germany because of its view of “different and inferior” as defective. The “inferior,” people with disabilities, were likely to commit undesirable social behavior and often criminal behavior. Physicians “do no harm” was seen as a product of a less advanced era in history. Problems could be eliminated through sterilization, incarceration, or death. Prior to World War II, custodial treatment was used placing people with disabilities in institutions and state asylums. At the outbreak of World War I, treatment shifted, including implementing cost cutting measures. There was high levels of deprivation and neglect of patients in institutions. People with disabilities were considered of less economic worth. Without proper support many could not contribute to society. In the 1920s, asylums attempted to differentiate between the “curable” and “incurable.” Treatment would not work for the “incurable”, therefore another method was needed to eliminate the threat. Forced sterilization of people with disabilities was utilized to prevent disability and criminal behavior. During the 1930s there was open discussion of killing inmates in asylums. This only reinforced the idea that people with disabilities were “inferior.” Rights were granted exclusively to physicians to alleviate suffering. This shift in mindset lead to the creation of “life unworthy of life.” People with disabilities were considered incurable with no will or sense of living. A program for children and later one for adults were implemented to systematically kill people with disabilities. Soon after the killing programs started, the world learned of the deaths. The public and the rest of the world was revolted and outraged. The backlash scared authorities and the programs were shut down. However, the program was continued in secrecy through lethal injection, starvation, and intentional exposure.
In the United Sates, 1890-1920, almost every scientist interested in heredity was interested in eugenics. This viewpoint was continued through naturalism–a loss of innocence, freedom, and spontaneity. Eugenics was linked to morality, intelligence and success. People were with disabilities were seen as immoral, unintelligent, and unsuccessful. They deviated from what eugenics deemed the “ideal body”. In the late 19th century, the “painless destruction” of insane and deficient minds was advocated by eugenicists. This “painless destruction” was tied to “pure breeding” the elimination of defectives or people with disabilities and related social problems. In the early 1900s, the menace of the “feebleminded” spread. People with disabilities were seen as dangerous moral defectives threatening the community. This rhetoric fed people’s fear, ignorance, and arrogance of people with disabilities. In 1908, there was a shift to the emerging mental hygiene movement and community services. The new message was adjustment and adaptation, the “maladjusted perpetual defective”. Despite this move forward to positive thinking, Henry Goddard, a psychologist and eugenicist disagreed. In 1911, Goddard argued that there were two solutions–segregated institutions or total institutions and sterilization if necessary. According to J.M. Murdock, total institutionalization was used to prevent more “misery, pauperism, degeneracy and crime”. This led to the development of special education (special classes), training schools, testing methods, and reclassification of disability. People with disabilities were receiving supported services but were still seen as defectives. These special classes promoted placing people with disabilities in public schools to socialize them. When puberty hit, they would be placed in institutions for the remainder of their life. Eugenicists believed the a feeble child would be a feeble adult no matter what intervention was undertaken. Meanwhile, in 1911, states mandated eugenic sterilization of certain adult feeble minds. In 1914, a commission in New Jersey advocated for the creation of widespread colonies of mental defectives.
*War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (2003, pp. xv-xxv) by Edwin Black
*Useless Eaters: Disability as Genocidal Marker in Nazi Germany by Mark Mostert in The Journal of Special Education, 2002, 36(3), 155-168
*Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (1994, pp. 131-183) by James Trent