Disabilities Throughout History

Have you ever devoted any thought to the origins of disabilities? No, you haven’t, and neither have I. That’s why I am writing this important article without having done any research whatsoever. You want research, you have to pay for it. For free, I make it up as I go along. Even so, understanding history is critical not only to our future, but to our children’s future. Don’t ask me why. I’m still working on that.

In prehistoric times, there were no disabilities because there were, as yet, no related service providers. The first evidence we have of the existence of disabilities come to us from ancient Egypt. While the Egyptians had the most advanced civilization of their time, we know that they suffered from serious pragmatic language deficits as evidenced in their pedantic, and somewhat hokey, language usage, as in the following exchange:

Queen: Ramses, lets have Chinese tonight.

Ramses (who looks a lot like Yul Brynner): Yes my sweet. I am Pharoah. So let it be written, so let it be done. (Pounds fist on naked, sculpted chest)

Queen: Honey, have you seen the speech therapist this week?

Ramses: No my queen. It is my will that the priests shall summon him.

Queen: Yeah. He needs to come here more often.

Unfortunately, most of the speech therapy needed to address this problem was not covered by insurance, and ultimately their empire went bankrupt.

The ancient Greeks clearly suffered from some sort of sensory integration disorder, since they were unable to tolerate the feeling of any clothing on their bodies during exercise. As a result, sporting events such as the Olympics were conducted entirely in the nude. This drew great crowds of spectators, as you might imagine. Hence the current popularity of the Olympics, still largely conducted without clothing (See beach volleyball below).

Beach volleyball players showing they wear very little clothing while competing

The existence of scholastic based disabilities was not documented until the Renaissance because nobody during the Middle Ages could read, write or do math. With the waning of the Middle Ages, many more people started reading, and so we had the creation of learning disabilities. The most famous learning disabled person during this period was the great Leonardo Da Vinci himself, whose successes were legendary, in spite of his disability. Leonardo owed a great debt to his friend Orton “Ortie” Gillingham, who created the first scientifically based reading system. This system is what enabled Leonardo to create his 
greatest inventions, and was thereafter named after its most famous pupil: the Da Vinci Code. This is the system still in use today.

During the Tudor era in England, a number of members of the noble classes appeared to suffer from an orthopedic impairment causing them to wear oversized neck supporters as we see in the following picture:

Tudor-era man wearing a very large ruffed collar

It was later discovered that all of these individuals were involved in road accidents, and were, in fact, wearing these braces at the suggestion of their lawyer.

Napoleon Bonaparte was another famous individual believed to have a disability. Presumably this was related to his unfortunate, and unsanitary, habit of tucking his hand in his pants.

Napoleon Bonaparte shown with his hand inside his clothing

I always thought that was simply a “guy” thing, or that he was suffering from indigestion. In any event, this condition would not have qualified him for an IEP, though perhaps a 504 plan.

Probably the most famous disabled person in history is Albert Einstein. At various times, he has been credited with having the following disabilities: autism, learning disability, cognitive disability, speech-language impairment, color blindness, musically challenged, and lousy bowler. Despite these deficits, Einstein became the greatest scientific mind of our time. But his biggest handicap was the only one nobody talks about – the one experienced by his hair stylist, who was clearly blind.

Albert Einstein looking thoughtful

By the 20th century, individuals with disabilities were more widely accepted. Great minds and talents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ray Charles made us realize that people with disabilities could accomplish anything. Also, popular culture began to reflect this greater acceptance in a variety of ways, including the appearance of such songs as “The Three Blind Mice,” “Pinball Wizard (that deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball),” and the ever popular “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens, who gave us the immortal words,

“And if I ever lose my hands, Oh I won’t have to work no more…
And if I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south…”

Popular culture is not always everything we would wish. So what have we learned from this, these lessons of history? Well, we have learned:

1.That many people with disabilities have accomplished great things.

2.That Yul Brynner was much better in “The King and I” than he was in “The Ten Commandments.”

3.That in some instances, no hair is better than some hair.

4. That nondisabled people, writing about being disabled, frequently write truly horrible songs (“Every time I look at you, I go blind” – Hootie and the Blowfish).  

5. And finally, that this article has mercifully come to an end without having imparted a single actual fact.

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