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A Journey through Time #3: The Ancient Roots of Seeing Persons with Disability as 'Deformed'

In mainstream ‘Western’ discourse about the role of the past in the present, the positive legacies of ancient Greece and Rome are often emphasized, due to these civilizations’ linguistic, philosophic and scientific contributions. Indeed, many of contemporary society’s advances have been built on the contributions made by Greek and Roman civilizations, which surround us in our everyday lives. Linguistically, Greek and Latin have had a huge influence on technical scientific language while the Romance languages are based upon Latin. In the teaching of philosophy, the ‘Classics,’ those works on history and philosophy by household names like Plato, Thucydides, and Aristotle, continue to be utilized in upper secondary and undergraduate education. Of course, in this Western-centric discourse, the contributions of ancient non-Western civilizations are invariably forgotten.

When I hear or read discourse that is overwhelmingly positive about anything, I automatically become suspicious and seek to re-examine the subject from a critical perspective. We must remember to not wear rose-tinted glasses when assessing history legacies as their discursive selection and framing is subject to interpretation. We must examine the negative aspects of any subject alongside the positive. Therefore, through a critical lens, I sought to understand the conditions and attitudes towards persons with disabilities (PwD) in ancient Greek and Roman societies and what I found challenged the almost purely positive contemporary perceptions of those ancient civilizations.

Attitudes towards PwD in Ancient Greece and Rome

As I embarked on this history project, I’ve noticed that a Greek word translated into English as “deformed” has often been used to describe PwD in antiquity. In this period, for example, in martial societies such as ancient Sparta, it was legally required to abandon “deformed and sickly” infants. Most advocates for PwD are well aware of the infamous quote by one of ‘Western’ civilization’s most revered philosophers, Aristotle; “Let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.” Roman civilization grew out of Ancient Greece and accounts of Roman society’s attitudes and treatment of PwD are so gruesome that I don’t have the heart to describe them. I would argue that this troubling idea about PwD being ‘deformed’ has pervasive, deep roots in human history, going back to the ancient ‘Western’ world.

In my opinion, much of the discrimination, harassment and abuse PwD have endured throughout the ages can be traced back to this attitude, which seems to have been prevalent among ancient elites. To me, the ancient roots of such problematic attitudes towards PwD coincide with the rise of elites, class and hierarchy. As post-hunter-gatherer societies became more sedentary, elites rose to construct hierarchies that governed relations between emerging classes and interactions between individuals in order to accumulate wealth and power. As wealth and power were accumulated by elites, they sought to reinforce their position in the class hierarchy by disseminating ideas about the characteristics which they believed make individuals valuable to society.

In ancient Greece, this general tendency seems to have been coupled with religious beliefs concerning the human body, which led to representations of “perfect” bodies that were believed to be sacred, as well as mathematical notions of symmetry, harmony and ideal proportions. These ideas meant that people were valued for their appearance, and not for their spirit, education, or character. This is very far from the understanding of human rights, which stresses that all humans have value as human beings and as part of the family of humankind. Although many things have changed since antiquity, we still see the continuation of ancient Greek ideals of beauty and “perfection” in social media, for instance, driving countless young people to feel unhappy about their body, causing mental health issues as well dangerous behaviours such as extreme dieting or plastic surgery.

Conditions of PwD in Ancient Greece and Rome

From our modern perspective, we must try to remember that the significantly worse quality of life and life expectancy during hunter-gatherer and ancient times affected everyone, especially PwD. In general, one’s position in the societal hierarchies was determined, first by one’s class and then by one’s utility for society. So, where did PwD fit into such a society? For PwD, like other individuals, the first determination of one’s class position was based upon their family’s class position in society, which was very determinative of their future prospects, as it is today. Therefore, the level of care or education received by PwD was determined by their family’s wealth and class position. The chances of any individual from a poor or enslaved family, including PwD, advancing to a higher rung of the class hierarchy in society was quite low.

Individuals who were able to rise in society leveraged their ‘utility,’ how they were beneficial for society, which was generally determined by men’s physical strength and intelligence and women’s beauty and fertility. Those whose utility wasn’t obvious to self-interested elites and classes were likely not considered, and many PwD, including those who obtained a disability through accident or violence, fell to the margins of the societal hierarchy. Thus, the conditions of PwD in societies in which class became structural, like in the ancient world, may have regressed when compared to their position in hunter-gatherer societies.

Of course, this is a very generalized narrative about ancient society and there were certainly periods under specific rulers in different societies when attitudes toward PwD were less harsh. We can find evidence of similar levels of compassion and empathy in ancient Greece also, where, for example, stone ramps were constructed to allow PwD access to important healing temples. It is a pity that we don’t have more of a written record of families’ treatment of PwD, as their behaviour would likely have been more loving, inclusive and accommodating than that of society at large. Unfortunately, it was unlikely for a common person’s thoughts to have been preserved from this period.

One can see the ancient class-based foundation of the contemporary lack of reasonable accommodation and accessibility PwD face as well as how discourse on ‘deformity’ continues today through the discrimination, harassment and abuse levelled towards PwD. Thus, the conditions faced by PwD and attitudes towards them serves as a case study that demonstrates one of the lesser-known negative aspects of Greco-Roman civilization, in contrast to its mostly positive legacy. The deep roots of these hurtful attitudes must be remembered and identified if we want to excavate them from collective discourse and improve the contemporary conditions of PwD.

Chavia Ali


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