Disability as a Social Construct: Legislative Roots

By Claire H. Liachowitz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Disability and Charity: Rehabilitation for Civilians

This chapter and the next will show that disabling social policies can in large part be traced to institutionalized practices of charity and segregation. In this chapter that process is demonstrated by presenting the legislative background of federally sponsored rehabilitation. Chapter 5 discusses the same method of constructing disability in the context of education.

First, in order to specify antecedents of the belief that biological deficiency confers social deficiency, several colonial laws are examined. Then, after a discussion of Social Darwinism, the chapter will consider some disabling effects of the institution of charity.

A final segment shows that the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1920 furthered the development of disability by its implication that only people who contributed to the nation's economic welfare were worthy of assimilation. That even these "worthy" people were viewed as inherently indequate, however, is evidenced by their frequent restriction to relatively menial work. The circular mechanism basic to the self-fulfilling prophecy indicates that these vocational constraints and negative perceptions about the natural, inherent, competence of handicapped people probably reinforced one another.

Analyses of the unemployment of ablebodied workers offer another useful perspective on this problem of denying the abilities of the physically handicapped population. Consider, for example, this portion of a 1922 discussion of labor problems by Gordon Watkins:

Unemployment not only tends to dishearten the workers, but also fill them with resentment against the present industrial order. Discontent and a tendency to radicalism are the natural

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