A History of Exclusion

All exploiting societies have created a hierarchy of human value. Many religious, mythical, and pseudo-scientific theories have been developed in order to justify inequality and greed. Much of the power of these theories has come from our lack of knowledge about how human beings actually function. Karma, possession by evil spirits, witchcraft, and divine retribution have been accepted as explanations for illness, disability, and psychological distress. For centuries this has led to purges, witch hunts, exorcisms, and infanticide. These ideas can still be seen in symbolic form-in gargoyles on the outside of churches; in fairy stories, myths, and legends. They are counterbalanced by idealised images of human physical perfection, such as the gods of ancient Greek and Roman times and of the present day. Goodness and physical perfection/evil and ugliness have become inextricably linked in our psyches.

In the nineteenth century these notions were strengthened and deepened by the Industrial Revolution. England was the first country to industrialise on a massive scale because of a number of coincidental factors: money from the slave trade in the hands of the British owning class; cheap and plentiful cotton, also available because of the slave trade; England's geography, being a small island of ports joined together by a canal system, allowing for the easy import, distribution, and export of raw materials and finished goods; a well-established textile industry, ready to be converted from wool to cotton; the invention of the steam engine by James Watt and George Stevenson; and the invention of the "Spinning Jenny" and power loom by Arkwright and others.

At this time, science and medicine were beginning to change our understanding of the body and disease. In particular, a shaky understanding of genetics was starting to emerge. As the ruling class has always had far greater access to and control over information, it is easy to see why new discoveries and information from the sciences were used to reinforce class societies rather than to empower "ordinary" people.

In less than a hundred years, Britain changed from a nation in which most people lived simple but sustainable lives, in which families were the economic unit and much land was "common," to one in which most people worked in factories, mines, or on the land for wages, totally dependent upon the capitalists who employed them. Destitution and disease became commonplace. The growing inequalities between owners and workers had to be justified to both parties as being "natural" and inevitable. An obvious tool was the newly emerging science of "breeding," with its most insidious theory of eugenics.

Eugenics actually existed from the time of Aristotle and Plato, who created a certain philosophical climate which became especially prevalent in Europe in the Middle Ages and which led eventually to modern eugenics. Eugenics states that physical, intellectual, and moral traits are inborn-that the rich and powerful owe their privileged position to "good breeding" and conversely that the poor, "defective," "feeble-minded," and "immoral" owe their lot to "bad genes." Furthermore, the "bad genes" lead their owners to reproduce at a faster rate than the owners of "good genes." Therefore, those with "bad genes" need to be prevented from breeding in order to protect the stock and keep Britain (Europe, the USA, etc.) great. The reproduction of the "unfit" was thought to be one of the main causes of the poverty, unemployment, criminality, alcoholism, and idleness which preoccupied many Edwardian social reformers.

In Europe and the USA, this kind of thinking led to mass sterilisation programmes. In Britain it was thought that on such a small crowded island sterilisation programmes would lead to more irresponsible sex and consequently to an explosion of sexually transmitted diseases. Thus Britain chose instead to insti-tutionalise "defectives," for their entire lives, in single-sex institutions.

In 1903 Britain passed the Mental Defectives Act, which allowed local authorities to "clear the streets" of anyone considered to have a physical, mental, or moral defect. This included anyone who was found to have given birth to an illegitimate child. People whose only "defect" was extreme poverty were institutionalised into workhouses where they were kept, by law, "poorer than the poorest people outside of the workhouse." This was a form of punishment, because it was widely believed at the time that they had purposefully made themselves poor.

The task of separating the "deserving poor" from the "undeserving poor" came to be the responsibility of doctors. Categories of impairment were designed (cretins, morons, idiots, the feeble-minded, and moral imbeciles), and tests, including the I.Q. test, were created to indicate in which category each person belonged. These tests were used to "prove" the connection between low intelligence and low social class. It was also widely believed at the time that physical deformity was an outward indication of mental defectiveness.

In the early half of this century, most disabled people in Britain were children, the vast majority of whom were from working-class homes. Many came from the poorest families in the slums, for physical impairment was often a consequence of severe deprivation and hardship. This close association between poverty and disability helped to fuel, in the minds of charities and government officials, extremely hostile attitudes towards the disabled children. Many of the prejudices of middle-class reformers about the undeserving poor were heaped upon them. They were part of the "great unwashed" who were ignorant, immoral, and feeble-minded. They needed to be saved from themselves and from their families. One of the main aims was to instill in them a discipline which would prevent them from begging, living on poor-law handouts, and becoming a public nuisance.

"When I first arrived at Halliwick the nurse took me into this bathroom and she stripped me off completely. She cut my hair short, right above the ears. And then I was deloused with powder of some description. Then they put me in a bath and scrubbed me down with carbolic soap. It was very degrading to me, and I felt as though the end of the world had come . . . I didn't know what to do, had no idea what I was going to do. But it was huge and it was lonely-the place. And I felt really lost, and I thought, 'What am I going to do with no one to love me?' . . . The next morning you were given a number and you had to remember it. My number was twenty-nine, and when I got up and went to wash, my towel and flannel had my number on them. Twenty-nine was engraved on all my hairbrushes and things with a red-hot poker-like thing. Everything I owned had a marking of twenty-nine so I can never forget that number . . . And if the matron wanted you she just called you by your number. We never had names, we were just numbers there."

Mary Baker,
Halliwick Home for Crippled Girls, 1930's

"I was in the hospital for five years, and every week my mum used to visit me but she wasn't allowed in the ward, not once in all that time. She just looked in through the window in the ward door and waved at me like all the other parents. That was really upsetting, much more upsetting than if we had had proper visits. She used to leave me presents to have when she'd gone home, but of course it wasn't like seeing her properly. All year we would look forward to the garden fete in the summer so that we could be with our mums properly for an hour or so."

Jean Holiamby,
Tite Street Children's Hospital, 1928-1933; "treated" for cerebral palsy

The most vulnerable to victimisation were disabled people and young men and women with learning difficulties. Many found themselves classified as moral imbeciles and were locked away in long-stay mental handicap hospitals, sometimes for the rest of their lives. In such institutions, sex segregation was strictly enforced.

"Years ago we daren't talk to the boys. Oh no, we had to keep away from them. Girls used to be on one side and boys on the other. If we talked to the boys we could get into real trouble. I did get frightened of getting into trouble for what I might say to the boys, so I just kept my mouth shut."

Evelyn King,
Mental Handicap Hospital

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards there was a growing emphasis in British society on the importance of masculinity, physical strength, fitness, athleticism, and sport-what came to be called "Muscular Christianity." These values were stressed in schools and were immensely influential in uniformed youth movements, like the Boy's Brigade and the Boy Scouts. It was all part of the new ideology of imperialism, with its great pride in the supremacy of the British army and navy and the power of the empire. Their children's failure to live up to this mythical stereotype often caused great shame and suffering for the parents of disabled children.

"They kept you where people couldn't see you. They kept you out of sight."

Muriel Faulkner;
contracted polio in 1904

Thousands of disabled boys and girls spent long periods of their childhood as hospital patients. Here the enforcement of strict institutional discipline and the mistaken belief in the complete immobilisation of some patients meant that occasionally children were not allowed to move at all from their beds.

"From the age of five to thirteen I was encased in a plaster cast, rather like an Egyptian mummy, in the children's ward of the Royal Sea Bathing Hospital in Margate. Whenever the little girl in the next bed to me wanted to play dollies, I undid the straps that were meant to keep my arms still and joined in with the game. But if the nurse ever saw us, and she mostly did, she thundered down the ward, yelled at me, put me back in my little coffin, and tied my arms and hands down with bandages to the sides of the bed really tight. It was like being crucified flat. There were so many times when I wanted to play and talk, and I would wriggle and accidentally break bits off the cast. And this would mean that I had to be replastered. The nurses got really furious, and they would quite often wheel me, bed and all, into the cold, wet bathroom as a punishment. I had to cry myself to sleep to the sound of the dripping tap."

Susan Miller;
hospitalised with polio in 1921 (at the age of one) to 1942

Before the last world war, disabled people formed an underclass, neglected by society and denied opportunities in the world of work. The training they received in the institutions and the workshops attached to them prepared them for a lowly role in life. They were trained to enter into a very narrow range of occupations. As "apprentices" they were often paid nothing for their labour, or at most pocket money, yet their wares were often sold for profit.

"I went to a school for handicapped children. I could read a bit when I went there, but we just had baby lessons at that school. Very basic things like the ABC's and adding up two numbers. They treated you like imbeciles. Dressmaking was the main subject-well, needlework. It was all we learnt. We used to sit for hours stitching. I never knew what good it was going to do me in life, to get a job and that. I hated it and so I was no good at all at sewing. First you had to learn how to do a buttonhole. You had to sit there and do those until you were perfect. Then you could move onto a garment of some sort. Well I never got past the buttonhole at all. I was on buttonholes for years."

Betty Holland,
Local Authority school for crippled children, 1920's

"At the end of my educational life at sixteen, I simply, the next day, went into the workshops. It had been decided that I would go into boot and shoe making and repairing. I was to be trained, then sent back to my little village where I had come from, there to have a wooden shed adjacent to my cottage home which would be my workshop. And so it was . . . The system allowed for three years to become qualified to decently sole and heel a pair of shoes . . . it was not uncommon to take weeks over a simple task. People asked if I wasn't bored to death, but the truth of the matter is that we were psychologically adapted to the acceptance of one's lot."

Earnest William,
Birmingham Blind Institution, 1920's

"On the day that I left school I was told that I was going into the mat shop, and that was that. There was no choice at all. We had twenty odd looms in our mat shop . . . big thundering great things they were. And the common run of the mat maker was that you stood winding yarn 'round a steel rod and thumping the big heavy baton down and banging the rows up together. We did that then, hour after hour, year after year, lifetime after lifetime."

Ted Williams,
Sharrow Lane Workshops, 1930's

The fact that many of the institutions of the day were reliant on public donations added to the justification for creating a false public image of the kind of life children had to live inside them. It was parents who were seen as particularly dangerous, and great effort was put into preventing their children from telling them what was really happening to them.

"When we were in the classroom we used to write home every week. After we had written a letter the headmistress passed them all on to the matron so she could read them, and she used to cross off what we weren't supposed to put in. We had to put in that we loved it there, and everybody was happy, and everything that was really lies. We couldn't put any of our true feelings into a letter. If we had written anything bad about the place, they were brought back to us and we had to write them again, leaving out those bad things. Then they were sent back to the matron and sealed down and sent off. I used to write to my father and to my grandmother. And I used to get letters back saying they were so thrilled that I was so happy, but my letters were all lies."

Mary Baker,
Halliwick Home for Crippled Girls, 1930's

"We went out to school three times a week. I really enjoyed it there. It was exciting learning new things because I had never been able to go to school before, and I was ten by then so I really did want to learn. They taught us how to write a bit with chalk and to draw, just simple things to start us off . . . But as soon as we got back to the home the matron would knock anything we had learnt out of us. It seemed like she didn't think we ought to be allowed to learn. She wouldn't let us have any books. And if you was caught reading, you got a crack behind the ear and the book would be torn up in front of your eyes. Mother and dad didn't know anything about all this going on, and when they came to visit me they used to bring me books and comics. They were really pleased that I was going to school at last. Course they didn't know that as soon as they left the matron took all the new books off me and ripped them up."

Gerald Turner,
Loxiey House Home for Crippled Boys, 1942

It was only after the 1944 Education Act that some categories of "defective children" were deemed educable and were entitled to some basic education. The institutions for children called "Junior Training Centres" took down their signs and replaced them with "Special School." Business inside went on as usual. It was not until 1977 (in England) that the last group of children, those considered "severely handicapped," were brought out of long-stay hospitals into the education system. To this day, local authorities have the power to remove disabled children from mainstream schools and place them in segregated "special" schools.

The legacy of the nineteenth century, particularly the poison of eugenics and "social hygiene" thinking, has damaged us to a far greater depth than most of us are aware. Much of it is still considered valid in many social programmes and services, from selective abortion to special education. In terms of the insights of Re-evaluation Counselling, the most devastating effect of all this has been to stop us from giving attention to "defective" people. Such people may well get stared at; prodded; poked; tested; labelled; treated; put on programmes to be changed, cut-up, altered, and have their lives managed by an endless procession of non-disabled people; but real attention-never! The aim of eugenics was to break the relationships, the attachment, of "non-defective" people with "defective" people and vice versa. Only by doing that could good people become the agents of such brutality and cruelty. In the 1990's the habit of "not-seeing" has become so well entrenched that we no longer need to physically separate people. We have learned to build institutions without walls.

Inclusion is about the mending of relationships, about learning how to listen to these unheard "voices," especially the voices of those who have the greatest need for other people. It is also about supporting these relationships when they come under attack. This will inevitably be both a joyful and a painful journey, as each one of us discovers how we have been coerced into taking part in such inhumanity, how our integrity has been compromised, and how our natural desire to help each other has been turned into a noose around our own necks. The joy is in seeing who we really are in our "raw" state-motivated by love, not greed; courage, not fear. Each one of us is complete and perfectly suited to make our individual contribution to the whole.

Micheline Mason
London, England
(Quotes are from Out of Sight, published by Northcote House, 1992, for a television series.)

(Present Time No. 110, January 1998)


Last modified: 2016-08-22 02:11:22-07