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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds In 500 BC, Chuang T’zu, a Taoist scholar, celebrated the diversity of a crippled community member in his writings. However, people who were deemed different were not always treated as equals. In the Greek and Roman eras, the ideal of the perfect body was worshipped. Infanticide was justified for economic and eugenic reasons. Through the Middle Ages, people with disabilities were feared, persecuted, and tortured. They were thought to be possessed by demons, and banished from society. Disability during this time was seen as a punishment from God. The 18th and 19th centuries– sometimes referred to as the Age of Enlightenment– saw the medicalization of disability gain ground.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds People with disabilities were excluded from society, usually incarcerated in asylums, and placed under the supervision of uniformed wardens. On a more positive note, there were also some early attempts at rehabilitation during this time. These were influenced by revolutionary ideas of equality. For example, in 1784, a school and workshop for blind people was founded in Paris, using a system of raised type for reading. In 1817, a school for deaf children was founded in the USA. It used manual signing instruction, known as the French Method. In between 1791 and 1827, there were six institutions for the blind founded in the UK.

Skip to 1 minute and 42 seconds In the late 19th century, the notion of Social Darwinism and eugenics gained acceptance in some parts of the world– especially Europe and the USA. People with disabilities were categorised as poor and unfortunate, and were said to deserve what they got. They were not deemed to be worthy of society’s support, because they were unproductive. Concerns for the future of the human race resulted in the enactment of sterilisation laws in 23 states of the USA by 1926. In Australia, up until World War II, voluntary agencies were founded to provide assistance to disadvantaged groups. These agencies were often controlled by churches.

Skip to 2 minutes and 24 seconds This meant rehabilitation in Australia, prior to 1901, was the charitable concern of churches and other groups that was subsidised by the government. In the early 1900s in Australia, there was growing acceptance of government involvement in social policy, based on notions of egalitarianism and equal opportunity– also known as a fair go. For example, a repatriation scheme was set up for injured soldiers that included a vocational training scheme, where they were provided with medical treatment, and some financial assistance to re-establish themselves back into society. Although Australia was at the forefront of providing income support to people with disability, direct government assistance for rehabilitation didn’t start until after World War I. The concept of rehabilitation in Australia had its roots in social welfare.

Skip to 3 minutes and 17 seconds The meaning of the term, rehabilitation, has evolved to what it is known today– the reintegration or resettlement into participating in community life. The period of the 1940s in Australia marked the beginning of the government-provided rehabilitation services for people with a disability, through the establishment of the Community Rehabilitation Scheme. By 1956, rehabilitation centres were located in each state capital, with an emphasis on vocational outcomes. These centres had a heavy medical focus, and consisted of a strong medical hierarchy, staffed by professionals such as doctors, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, pathologists, teachers, and trade instructors. These rehabilitation centres were the predominant mode of rehabilitation service delivery until the 1970s. During the 1970s, there was a paradigm shift in rehabilitation.

Skip to 4 minutes and 15 seconds Emphasis moved from vocational outcomes to achieving maximum independence for people with disability in all areas of their lives. During this period, the medical concept of rehabilitation was challenged– with concepts such as, the least restrictive alternative, de-institutionalisation, independent living, normalisation, and dignity of risk. This era also saw increasing public acceptance of equal opportunities for people with disabilities. This had a major impact on the field of rehabilitation. However, increased unemployment levels at the time meant that it was even harder to achieve the rehabilitation goal of paid, full-time employment. Over time, notions of normalisation and community integration were legitimised by various disability services, and anti-discrimination legislation.

Skip to 5 minutes and 10 seconds These aimed to eliminate discrimination against people with disability, and to promote community acceptance of equal rights for everyone in society. In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to ensure that people with disability enjoy human rights on an equal basis with others. The Convention follows the decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. Worker’s compensation, and motor vehicle accident insurance legislation, have also had significant influence on rehabilitation. In Australia, the National Disability Insurance Scheme was launched in 2013, changing the way funding and services are accessed by people with disability.

A brief journey through history

We can’t look at the history of disability and rehabilitation without looking at the history of treatment of people with disabilities.

Watch the video above which describes a brief history of disability and rehabilitation. If you would rather view the text version, select this link to visit the timeline instead.

Historical trends have continued to affect the way disability is viewed and the ways in which disability and rehabilitation services are provided even today. It’s important to understand that attitudes and the treatment of people with disability don’t grow in isolation to what’s happening in the rest of society. In other words, disability and rehabilitation service delivery don’t occur in a vacuum. Service delivery occurs within the context of what’s happening in wider society. So, let’s look at some of the major shifts that have occurred through history in relation to people with disability.

Your task

Reflect on the history of society’s response to disability in your geographical area. Select the comments link below and post your opinion as to how disability is seen in your community today. Remember to tell us what country or area you’re from.

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This video is from the free online course:

Realising Career Potential: Rethinking Disability

Griffith University