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A Journey through Time 1: Persons with Disabilities from the Past to the Present

Updated: May 24, 2021

Why are developed countries more inclusive and accessible for PWD than underdeveloped countries?

This thought-provoking question came up during a conversation I participated in on the new Clubhouse application recently about the rights of PWD in developed versus underdeveloped countries. Interestingly, the responses were quite varied and included answers which focused on the role of religion, government, law, resources, and even people’s feelings towards PWD. While I believe there’s some truth in every answer, I’m not convinced by those who focused on culture or psychology, because they don’t account for the political and economic structures that shape our societies.

Since the original discussion, I’ve been reflecting upon my personal experiences with the political and economic structures that have shaped my life as a PWD. I think it’s fair to say that, in general, political and economic structures are in place that make the developed world more inclusive and accessible. For example, my parents sought treatment for me in Spain as it was unavailable in Syria at the time. However, simply because rights and resources for PWD are generally better in the developed world, it doesn’t mean the situation is as good as it may appear from a distance. Far from it. Here in Sweden, I have to struggle to receive the basic accommodation I need and there are many places that aren’t accessible, including the building where many of my masters’ courses were held when I was a student.

I’ve also been thinking about my professional life working on PWD inclusivity and accessibility issues. In the last quarter-century, many ground-breaking laws and proposals have been put forward by international organizations and ratified by national governments, yet PWD from different parts of the world will attest that their societies have failed to become inclusive towards them, and most infrastructure remains inaccessible. This begs the question; how did societies and their infrastructure develop in such a non-inclusive and inaccessible way?

Obviously, any attempt to begin to address this question requires far more space than a single blog post would allow. One has to understand and analyse the situation of PWD in different places and during different stages of history. It would be unrealistic to expect that the path from the past to the present would be a steadily improving march towards a better future. The substance and pace of change ebbs and flows throughout history. The situation in any given place will also shift over time. For example, the situation for PWD was not always better in the ‘West.’ This can be demonstrated by studying the relatively progressive treatment PWD received during the medieval period in the Islamic World.

Therefore, I’ve decided this would be a great opportunity to do some research and write a series of blog posts through which we could start to understand the history of PWD, in particular the development of their rights, and the resources and infrastructure devoted to ensuring these rights. To do justice to this vital topic, I have chosen to write a series of bi-monthly blog posts about the historical situation for PWD over time.

I would start by exploring the period which takes up most of human history, the hunter and gatherer period, which I think many people, myself included, have some problematic preconceived notions about. Then, I would continue with the ancient period, of course looking at Greek & Roman examples, especially Aristotle’s famous quote about PWD. Yet, I would like to learn more about non-Western examples like ancient Egypt, India, China or other parts of the world where we have some documentation. Moving on to medieval times, I will contrast the awful treatment of PWD in Europe, where some PWD were jesters or ‘hunchbacks’, with the relatively progressive treatment they received from the Rashidun Caliphate for example. Again, I would like to expand the perspective to include PWD in medieval India and China.

Finally, I would look at the twentieth century which began with ‘freak shows,’ eugenics, and the attempted extermination of PWD by European fascists. I will also explore how capitalism and imperialism have often made more people disabled, while later in the twentieth century also providing the resources necessary to make the developed world more inclusive and accessible, and how this came to be.

These are just my preliminary ideas, and I realize I am only scratching the surface of this topic, so I could use your help. Through this endeavor, I would like this blog to become more interactive and I want your suggestions. So, I’m asking you for your feedback.

What do you think of this topic and how I’ve framed the question?

Are there any books, films, or documentaries about the history of PWD that you would recommend?

I’m interested in anything you’ve read or seen about the topic during any historical period.

Chavia Ali

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