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Opinions of Thursday, 2 October 2014

Columnist: Osei-Frempong, Samuel

From annihilation, ridicule to riddle

Feature Article of Thursday, 2 October 2014 Columnist: Osei-Frempong, Samuel From annihilation, ridicule to riddle Samuel Osei-Frempong chats with Colin Barnes on Disability Samuel Osei-Frempong chats with Colin Barnes on Disability

Disability has been with the human race since recorded history, weaving hostility, rejection, sympathy and assertiveness into the very fabric of the human culture, thought, civilisation and spirituality.

Many accounts of disability or persons with disability may never be known as they pre-date recorded history but, needless to say, its moments have been many and difficult.

Colin Barnes, in his article:”A legacy of oppression: A history in Western Culture”, opens a debate on disability with an opinion that ”the roots of disabled persons oppression lie in the ancient world of Greece and Rome and that this oppression is culturally produced through the complex interaction between the mode of production and central values of the society concerned.”

“There is evidence of a consistent cultural bias against people with accredited impairments in the emergence of industrial capitalism. Examples can be found in the Greek culture, Judean/Christian religious and European drama and art since well before the renaissance.”

He writes:” It is worth remembering too that history is usually sponsored, written and or invented by the powerful and therefore has a tendency to reflect their interest rather than those of the powerless. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then historical accounts of ‘disability’ and the lives of disabled people have been ignored or, more recently been dominated by an overtly individualistic medical perspective.”

Barnes states that it is often overlooked that Greek economy was built on slavery and it was an overtly patriarchal, hierarchical and violent society.

“Whiles the Greeks are universally renowned for asserting citizenship rights and the dignity of the individual, women and ‘strangers’ were considered inferior therefore only Greek males could assess those values.”

According to him, the thought of the day enabled the ‘civilised man’ to justify oppression and exploitation.

“The Greeks were also a violent race ever prone to war-military service for their nation which was obligatory. Greek society was made up of a collection of semi-autonomous city-states often at war with each other and or with their neighbours to some extent that this was necessary in order to maintain a constant supply of slaves.

In this type of society, the pursuit of physical and intellectual fitness was essential hence a very little room for people with any form of flaw imperfection. The Greek obsession with bodily perfection, which can be traced back to seven hundred to six hundred and seventy-five BC found expression in prescribed infanticide for children with perceived imperfections, in education, the gymnasium and competitive sports.

“Infanticide in the form of exposure to the elements for sickly or weak infants was widespread and in some states mandatory.”

The Greek Physician, Soranos, in the second century authored a script entitled : How to recognise a child that is worth raising” Among the profound statements made included the following:”The child should be perfect in all its parts, limbs and senses, and have passages that are not obstructed, including the ears, nose, throat, urethra and anus. Its natural movements be neither slow nor feeble, its limbs bend and stretch, its size and shape should be appropriate, and it should respond to natural stimuli”

Greek males were expected to compete both individually and collectively in the pursuit of physical and intellectual excellence in gymnasiums, amphitheatre and the Olympic Games.

These preoccupations were reflected in Greek philosophy and culture. The Greek gods and goddesses were perceived not as divine beings in anthropomorphic form but rather idealised representations of perfected humanity.

Barnes’s makes his review of Greek mythology and history more purposeful to his argument as he states” it is significant that there was only one physically flawed god, Hephaestus, the son of Zeus and Hera. Indeed, Zeus practised a sort of infanticide by banishing his son from heaven. Later Aphrodite, the goddess of love, takes pity on Hephaestus and marries him. The marriage did not last as she takes an able-bodied lover, Ares, because her husband is a ‘cripple’.”

The now familiar association between impairment, exclusion and impotency is clear. The link between impairment as a punishment for sin also has its roots in Greek culture.

In Sophocles’ famous tale of Oedipus Rex, the main character who after discovering that he had committed incest by having sexual intercourse with the mother, blinds himself as retribution.”

The Romans

Following their conquest of Greece, the Romans absorbed and passed on the Greek legacy to the rest of the known world as their empire expanded.

Ancient Rome was also a slave-based economy, espoused individual citizenship rights, was highly militaristic and had both materialistic and hedonistic values.

The Romans too were enthusiastic advocates of infanticide for the’ sickly’ or ‘weak’ children drowning them in the river Tiber, according to Barnes.

Like the Greeks, they treated harshly anyone whose impairments were visible at birth. People of short stature and deaf people were considered objects of curiosity or ridicule.

In the famous Roman games;’ dwarfs’ and ‘blind men’ fought women and animals for the amusement of Roman people. Even the disabled Emperor Claudius, who escaped death at birth only because he was from the highest echelon of Roman society, was subject to abuse from both the Roman nobility and Roman guards prior to his ascendancy to the imperial throne. Even his mother, Antonia, treated him with contempt and referred to him as “a monster of a man, not finished by nature and only half done.”

However, both the Greek and Romans developed scientifically based treatments for people with acquired impairments.

Aristotle attempted to study deafness and Galen, and Hypocrite tried to cure epilepsy which they saw as a physiological rather than a metaphysical problem. The Romans developed elaborate hydrotherapy and fitness therapies for acquired conditions.

In each of these societies, such treatment was only generally available to the rich and powerful.

The Judean Christian tradition

Judean/ Christian religions are often perceived as the principal source of contemporary western moral values as they have found expression in Western languages, thought and jurisprudence.

Barnes says that,” The Jewish culture of the ancient world perceived impairments as un-Godly and the consequence of wrongdoing.

Much of Leviticus in the Old Testament is devoted to a catalogue of human imperfections, which preclude the possessor from approaching or participating in any form of religious ritual(see : Leviticus 21 16-20.2)

But unlike other major religions of the period, the Jewish tradition prohibited infanticide. This became a key feature of subsequent derivatives, Christianity and Islam, as did the custom of caring for the sick and the less fortunate either through alms giving or the provision of direct care.

I personally believe that the opposition to infanticide and the institutionalisation of charity is probably related to the fact that Jewish society was not a particularly wealthy society. It was predominantly a pastoral economy dependent which on the rearing of herds of cattle, goats, sheep, as well as on some commercial trade. In addition, unlike their neighbours, the Jewish people were a relatively peaceful race, prone to oppression themselves rather than the oppression of others.

In such a society, people with impairments would almost certainly have been able to make some kind of contribution to the economy and the well-being of the community.

Barnes backed the assertion by saying that at its infancy, Christianity was a religion of the under-privileged, notably, slaves and women, charity therefore, were fundamental to its appeal and indeed its very survival.

He says:” Nonetheless, being presented as objects of charity effectively robbed disabled people of the claim to individuality and full human status. Consequently, they became the perfect vehicle for the overt sentimentality and benevolence of others-usually the priesthood, the great and the good.”

Disability and Europe

After the fall of Rome in the fifth century, Western Europe was engulfed by confusion, conflict and pillage. Throughout the Dark ages, the British Isles were made up of a myriad of ever changing Kingdoms and allegiance in which the only unifying force was the Christian Church.

According to Barnes, given the violent character of this period, it is likely that social responses to people with impairments would be equally harsh.

Until the seventeenth century, people rejected by their families and without resources relied exclusively on the haphazard and often ineffectual tradition of Christian charity for subsistence. Barnes says: ”People with severe impairments were usually admitted to one of the very small medieval hospitals in which were gathered ‘the poor, the sick and the bed-ridden’. The ethos of these establishments was ecclesiastical rather than medical.” During the sixteenth century, the wealth and power of the English Church was greatly reduced because of a series of unsuccessful political confrontations with the Crown. There was a steady growth in the numbers of people dependent on charity. This was a result of a growing population following depletion due to plague, successive poor harvests, and an influx of immigrants from Ireland and Wales.

The fear of the large army of beggars prompted local magistrates to demand an appropriate response from the Central Authority. The Tudor monarchs made economic provision for those hitherto dependent on the Church-The Poor Law of 1601.

According to Barnes, the ‘Poor Law’, signalled the first ever-official recognition of the need for state intervention in the lives of people with perceived impairments.

A general suspicion of people dependent on charity had already been established by the statute in 1388 which mandated local officials to discriminate between the’ deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor.”

Although, English individualism was well entrenched by the thirteenth century, the Church remained a formidable force in English and European cultures.

The English philosopher Hobbes’ description of nature probably works perfectly into the reality of the day as besides offering forgiveness and democratic afterlife in the frequently hostile world where for many, life could be nasty, brutish and short.

Barnes offers a view that the Christian Church asserted and retained its authority by propagating and perpetuating fear-fear of the devil and of his influence.

“The Biblical link between impairment, impurity and sin was central to this process. Indeed, Saint Augustine, the man credited with bringing Christianity to mainland Britain at the end of the sixth century AD, claimed that impairment was a punishment for the fall of Adam and other sins”

In other words, disabled people were living proof of Satan’s existence and his power over humans. Thus, visibly impaired children were seen as ‘changelings’-the Devils substitutes for human children.

The Malleus Malefic arum of 1487 declared that such children were the product of the mother’s involvement with sorcery and witchcraft. The religious leader and scholar accredited with the formation of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther (1485-1546) is on record to have said that he saw the devil in a disabled child: he recommended killing them.

These beliefs were also reflected in medieval literature and art. Probably the most famous example is Shakespeare’s “Richard III” written in the late sixteenth century.

Although, Richard had no physical impairments, Shakespeare portrays him as” twisted in both body and mind. Since he cannot succeed as a lover because of his perceived physical limitations, he is compelled to succeed as a villain.

People with impairments were also primary targets for amusement and ridicule during the middle Ages.

Analysis of the joke books for Tudor and Stuart England show the extent of this practice. Besides references to the other mainstays of popular humour such as foreigners, women and the clergy, every impairment from idiocy to insanity to diabetes and bad breath was a welcome source of amusement.

Children and adults with physical abnormalities were often put on display at village fairs (visits to Bedlam) were common source of amusement, and the practice of keeping ‘idiots’ as objects of entertainment was prevalent among the wealthy.

The role of the Thinkers

The eighteenth century witnessed a significant intensification of the commercialisation of the land and agriculture and the beginnings of industrialisation in the Western World.

It also precipitated the emergence of the enlightenment and liberal utilitarianism. Enlightenment thinkers across Europe such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Francois Voltaire developed a range of ideas including a critique of established religions, an emphasis on the value of reason and science, a commitment to social progress, and the importance of individuality.

Developed in England by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, Liberal Utilitarianism is a philosophy of secular individual and rational self-interest. In political terms, it legitimates policies favouring the majority at the expense of the few.

These developments provided a new found legitimacy for the already well-established myths and practises from earlier less enlightened periods.

Thus, the nineteenth century is synonymous with the emergence of disability in its present form. This includes the systematic individualisation and medicalisation of the body and the mind. It brought about the exclusion of people with apparent impairments from the mainstream of community life into all manner of institutional settings.

With the emergence of ‘social Darwinism’, and Eugenic Movement and later’ social hygiene’ scientific reification of the age-old myth that, in one way or the other, people with any form of physical and or intellectual imperfections pose a serious threat to society.

According to Barnes,“The logical outcome was the proliferation of eugenic ideal throughout the western world during the first half of the twentieth century The systematic murder of disabled people in the Nazi death camps of the 1930 and 1940s is a historic moment for reliable reference.

Marxist Communism, according to Barnes, also had its roots firmly planted in the material and ideological developments which characterised eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and that many of its principal protagonists, both in Britain and overseas, embraced eugenic ideals as an essential corollary of the ’Utopian’ hope for a better world.

The nineteenth century was also significant for an upsurge of Christian charity and ‘humanitarian’ values among the Victorian middle and upper class (That is in England).

As a sequence, several charities controlled and run by non-disabled people for disabled people were founded during this period… the British and Foreign Association for Promoting the Education of the Blind, now known as the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) was set up in 1863. Its legacy remains with us today,” Barnes said.

Barnes conclude his essay by saying that,” This is not to suggest that negative attitudes are peculiar only to western culture, or that people with apparent impairment have always been rejected with the context of everyday life in societies, which appear to adhere to it.

Cultural responses to people with perceived impairments are by no means universal, whilst there are several examples of cultures with accommodate the needs of the so- called disabled persons, there are others which do not.

Although killing of children with visible impairments (infanticide) has consistently characterised western cultural development, it is evident that such people have existed throughout recorded history. Human beings are not cultural dupes.

He argues that it is likely that many parents rejected such practises and supported their disabled offspring.

“The overwhelming majority of impairments are acquired rather than congenital, that is, either through accident, illness or simply, old age. Thus, ensuring that the experience of impairment was and is common rather that an exceptional occurrence. In the Greco/Roman world, life was extremely harsh for all but the most privileged-high born, well-to-do males and those who lived in perfect health.”

With the coming into force of the Disability Act in Ghana and the awareness created by human rights activists, do we as Ghanaians still live in the “harsh jungle” where persons with disability are discriminated against or do we prefer to live in a civilised society where rights of the vulnerable persons are respected and enforced? In subsequent articles, I will attempt to discuss the Disability Act in the global context vis-à-vis the infrastructure, mentality, Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) and rights of disabled persons or mothers and fathers of disabled children who are directly employed by the Judicial Service of Ghana, Parliament of Ghana and the Flagstaff House (Office of the President). After all charity begins at home and must begin at home.

The article was first written by Samuel Osei-Frempong during his tenure as a Reuters’ Fellow, Green College, University of Oxford (2003/04). For further enquiries contact him on 0206678995 E-mail:

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