a coloured image of a painting by Bruegel, known as beggars or cripples, which have five crippled begars sitting on the lawn

The History of Disability and Its Representation in Popular Culture

Being different or looking different has always been a major problem and is considered as if it were posing a threat to norm-addictive societies. This difference could be colour, gender, race, religion or disability. Though among these mentioned categories there is one that encompasses all, which is disability. Given that particular races or people with non-normative gender orientations have been associated with intellectual or genetic inferiority, disability as a social category intersects with other underprivileged groups to a certain degree.

Scholars evaluate disability in the social and political structures by trying to divorce it from a medical context. For instance, Lennard Davis (2010) clarifies the distinction between impairment and disability. He states that, “Impairment is the physical fact of lacking an arm or a leg. Disability is the social process that turns an impairment into a negative by creating barriers to access.” Bearing that in mind, in this blog, I will try to investigate what “disability” meant in different periods. In the following, I will share some examples of how popular culture represents people with disabilities.

a black and white image of the disabled people in the Roman period, being exhibited publicly for auction
Credit: imperiumromanum.pl

Ancient Greeks and Romans

One of the first things that comes to mind about the ancient Greeks is the perfect-body-shaped, anatomically impossible statues. These sculptures suggest the concept of ideal beauty and  give hints about what could be the attitude towards people with disabilities. The ancient Greeks didn’t have much tolerance for people with disabilities. For instance, Spartans, would abandon disabled babies in desolate places. In Politics, Aristotle wrote that a law should be enacted to ban any disabled child from living: “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” His solution for them was euthanasia.

As for the Romans, they regarded people with disabilities as a source of shame. There were various practises they applied to them. They would abandon the deformed children to die, sometimes sell them as slaves or employ them as court entertainers.

black and white picture of the Ship of fools
The Ship of Fools Credit:gutenberg.org

Middle Ages

Since the Middle Ages lasted over 1000 years, we can’ talk about a homogenous approach towards people with disabilities. Rather, there were various positive and negative perspectives. To start with, disability didn’t exist as a word. Rather, people were blind, mute, dumb, lunatics, fools or lame. These were the terms used to address people with disabilities.

Secondly, they generally shared the same category with the poor. Additionally, there were beggars who pretended to be blind. Thus, people were never sure whether the blind were actually blind or just feigning it to earn money by begging. There was also another fact, which problematized the state of blindness. During the Medieval period, criminals were blinded as a punishment. In a way, this act criminalized blindness too.

With the rise of Christianity, the disability had religious treatment as well. Some considered disability as a sign of impurity and sinfulness. In some cases, cure was possible through purification rituals. For instance, Jesus Christ cured some impairments which demonstrated divine power. This softened the negative attitudes against people with disabilities. People gave alms and the church took care of them.

Additionally, “Idiot cages” and “Ships of Fool” were common practises to display people with disabilities. The first one used them for entertainment and to keep them out of trouble. Ships of fools would travel from port to port and exhibit mentally impaired people in exchange for money.

a black and white photo of carictature of disabled people
Credit: dhss.alaska.gov

The Early Modern Period

While the disabilities were more spiritual experiences for the Medieval period, the Early Moderns approached them with a more materialistic perspective. First of all, there was a refocus on the Galen’s humours: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. Diseases would occur in the excess of any of these humours. Melancholy, for instance, would occur in the excess of black bile.

Secondly, the concept of self and dignity of self emerged.  The interrelation between the microcosmic (human beings) and macrocosmic worlds (the great order or cosmos) was very prevalent. This analogy would reveal the truth about human nature. In other words, self was a part of the environment as well.

Also, Queen Elizabeth ordered the enactment of Poor Laws. Now it was the government rather than the church which took responsibility for people with disabilities. However, the conditions they had to live in were very challenging.

a black and white picture of a tree on which "eugenics" and " eugenics is the self direction of human evolution" write, with additional words scattered on the roots of the tree
Credit: eugenicsarchive.ca

Disability in the 19th and early 20th century

In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, there was a massive institutionalization process going on along with the growth in institutions for people with disabilities, such as asylums and workhouses. This was an attempt to remove mentally and physically challenged people from public view. Besides, “special schools” for people with learning disabilities or with hearing and visual impairment have been established. Everything for them was separate, and they were forced to live a segregated life from the rest of society.

More, disability had started to become a larger interest of social reformers like Dorothea Dix and doctors such as  Eduard Seguin (1812-1880) and  Jean-Etienne Dominique Esquirol (1782-1840). Seguin and Esquirol dedicated themselves to studying cognitive impairments. Seguin opened the first “special school” in 1839 and it was in 1866 he published his English work, entitled “Idiocy and its Treatment by the Physiological Method.”

As for the French psychiatrist Esquiral, his major contribution was to use clinical observations to achieve a systematic analysis of mental disturbances. Also, he distinguished insanity from mental retardation. In the accompaniment of all this progress, eugenics and ugly laws served as alternative tools which aimed at the sterilization of people with disabilities from the human race and the public view.


Eugenics is a theory and a set of practises that advocates selective breeding. It considers certain groups, due to their race, colour or physical/mental impairments and even economic condition (eg.poverty), genetically inferior. Therefore, they aim to exclude these groups from breeding. In the early 20th century, Francis Galton was the father of this notion. Galton considered people with disabilities genetically inferior. And he advocated that people with defects shouldn’t give birth because their children would have disabilities, too.

Ugly Laws

Another process of sterilization is the Ugly laws, which refer to the ordinances targeting “unsightly beggars” in many cities in the USA. In The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public, Susan M. Schweik delves into this topic and shares these ordinances. For instance, Section 3 of the Ugly Laws of San Francisco (1867), states “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares or public places in the City or Country of San Francisco shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view” (491). New Orleans, Portland, Chicago, Denver, Columbus and the State of Pennsylvania are some of the other cities or states that officialized ugly laws.

a black and white picture of a man in the wheelchair, which zooms on the wheelchair and the road that has barriers
Credit: americanhistory.si.edu

Late 20th Century

After the 1950s and especially the 1970s, organizations adopted new approaches towards disability. The necessity of human rights for people with disabilities gained worldwide recognition and became an international concern. First, in 1971, The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Retarded Persons. Secondly, in 1975, the Declaration of the Rights of Disabled Persons was adopted. These declarations state that people with disabilities have the same human rights as others and should have full access to all sorts of public services. While International Year of Disabled Persons is 1981 due to the UN’s call for a programme of action, 3 December has been celebrated as the International day of Persons with Disabilities since 1992.  In short, all these changes started a new era.

a black and white image of people with disabilities protesting with a slogan written on white sheet which says " injustice anywhere is a
Credit: wellesley.edu

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA. This law prohibits any discrimination against people with disabilities and enforces institutions to make the necessary judgments so that people with disabilities can be active members of American life. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 comes as an addition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act which bans any discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. ADA defines disability in three aspects:

  1. “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”,
  2. “a person who has a history or record of such an impairment”
  3. “a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment”

Probably the most important part is the last statement, which points at the socially constructed aspect of disability.

Assistive technologies and accommodations

What can we do to make everything easier for them? Fortunately, with the advancement of technology, there is a lot of software, such as Jaws, NVDA, and screen modification software, which make information more accessible for people with disabilities. To integrate them into society, we should also make the necessary adjustments to the environment. For instance, we can build more ramps and elevators. Also, workplaces and schools can obtain braille keyboards/prints, make use of the technology more and arrange workshops to raise awareness on this issue.

Above all, there is one thing we shouldn’t forget. The biggest challenge for them is society itself rather than their impairments.

a colored picture of caritucaristic drawing of two people carrying a person with disability in a handbarrow

Disability in academia

“We have to recognize that disablement is not merely the physical state of a small minority of people. It is the normal condition of humanity.”
(Sutherland 1981:18).

Since the mid-1980s, disability studies has become an academic discipline which has intrigued scholars from anthropology, literature, medieval studies and many more. It is a relatively young field which intersects with disciplines such as humanities, social sciences and science. The coursework in disability studies encompasses ethics, art, history, government policies and legislation.

Disability and anthropology

“Disability may be considered a culture, culture may be considered a disability, and cultural norms and values influence conceptions of disability”
(McDermott & Herve, 1995).

As mentioned before, disability studies interact with the studies of underprivileged groups on the basis of race, gender, class and national origin. In this matrix, “othering” and “stigmatizing” someone in regard to people’s differences stand out as the common problem. That’s one of the ways that disability gets into the scheme of anthropology, which aims to go beyond the medicalization of disability while focusing on it as a social construct. With regard to that, cultural and medical anthropology have made the largest contributions to the field of disability studies.

an image of the diagram of the social model of disabilitiy, which underscores the oppression and exclusion that people with disabilities face
Credit: inclusionlondon.org.uk

Models of Disability

There are many models of disability, such as a moral model, an empowering model, a charity model to address the issue of disability in different contexts. I will only give brief introductions to three major ones. These are the Religious Model of Disability, the Medical Model of Disability and finally, the Social/Cultural Model of Disability.

Religious Model of Disability

This pre-modern model was more prevalent in the Middle Ages. With the rise of Judeo-Christian traditions, disability was seen as proof of God. For people who saw disability from a positive perspective, helping people with disabilities brought them closer to God and the “disabled” were the emblems of holy-saints. Also, there was another group who associated disability with evilness and God’s punishment. In short, all of these views led to God.

Medical Model of Disability

This model understands the disability from a clinical perspective and focuses on the physical/mental impairments, looking at the individual’s body as a mere problem. The medical model of disability is problematic because it excludes social conditions which prevent people with disabilities from living a full life. In particular, this model is criticized for pathologizing differences. As Eyler (2010) states,

  1. This model reduces people with disabilities to objects of study.
  2. It certainly does not take into account those with disabilities who do not seek or even wish for a cure.

The Social/ Cultural Model of Disability

In this model, disability is a socially-created problem. In other words, it doesn’t attach the problem to the individual, unlike the medical one. Rather, it looks at the environment and its cultural narratives, language and representations as the main barriers which exclude people with disabilities from full participation in life. As Eyler (2010) pins down, “ it allows us to take into account the entire spectrum of experience for people with disabilities and does not force us to focus on constructed perceptions of disability at the expense of real, bodily phenomena.”

a very dark image of mentally "disabled" a video-game character, close-up on her face
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Credit: polygon.com

Disability in Popular Culture

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Developed by Ninja Theory, a British video game developer, Hellblade is a video game that takes you to the inner world of Senua, a warrior suffering from psychosis. Embedding the elements of Norse mythology and Celtic culture, the game follows the warrior Senua who has to reach Helheim by fighting otherworldly creatures to rescue her dead lover’s soul. One of the main dilemmas in the game is that we are never sure whether the creatures she is fighting with are real or just some illusions in Senua’s head. Thus, the game is more like a journey into Senua’s mindscape.

Considered as a work of art by many critics, this well-thought and structured game really allows an embodied experience for people who want to get familiar with what psychosis is like. This game is collaborative work of video-game developers, people suffering from psychosis, and neuroscientists, and it really works out well.

Freaks (1932) by Tod Browning

Freaks is a monochromatic documentary movie that focuses on the circus life of the freaks. The main plot revolves around a dwarf falling in love with a non-freak woman and his friends trying to save him from this abusive woman. What I like most about this movie is that it doesn’t put emphasis on the freaks’ differences or try to stereotype them. Rather, it represents them in their own community as they fall in love, get into fights, and always have each other’s backs.

The second great aspect of the film is that the performances are authentic. Unlike most mainstream films, able- bodied actors don’t pass for people with disabilities. There is no pretension or imitation. Unfortunately, for the same reason, the movie got very negative feedback from film critics. In my opinion, Freaks deserves to be watched and talked about more.

a colored image of a diagram which points at the problems of social structure for people with disabilities

Significance of Understanding Disability 

Even though people with disabilities fall short of the aesthetic ideals of society, disability is the norm and will always be part of our lives. As a society, it is our responsibility to make the necessary adjustments for people with disabilities, who are more likely to suffer from unemployment, less education, high poverty rates, and less access to public services.

Throughout the centuries, there have been different strategies to sterilize  people with disabilities from the public view or the human race through scientific racism, namely eugenics, or legislation, as in the example of the Ugly Laws. Would you also think that we are sterilizing our language to make the problem of disability less visible? Is that why we are coming up with longer phrases to depict a disability? Lastly, I want to leave you a video of the American comedian George Carlin, where he criticizes the “softened” language used for people with disabilities. I leave it to you to decide.

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