For Whom The Bell Curves

Filed Under (Critical Disability Studies) by Estee on 21-12-2008

Disability has existed since the dawn of mankind. So has autism. It’s only because autism became a distinctive “condition,” another breakdown of a minutiae of impairments, do we have a spectacle of autism stories in books and the media.

There is proof of it; disability since the dawn of mankind, that is. I know many of you heard Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher say it on CNN about a year ago (if you recall) and many “autism advocates” still don’t believe it. Kathy Snow and her Disability Is Natural website and articles is another one of many who has studied and espoused that disability is a natural part of human existence.

Many anthropologists have studied it — it’s not an arbitrary claim by some of us folks who believe that diversity extends to all people – not just of sexual orientation, race or religion – but also to individuals with neurological differences. Since antiquity, we have documented evidence of physical impairments. Berkson (1974, 1993), argued:

Monkey and ape groups include individuals who have fallen from trees or who have been injured by predators. [They] may survive in natural animal groups when their injury does not actually interfere with foraging or escape from predators. In other words, the injury may not be handicapping.

Injured animals may survive and live in a group because group living itself can provide aid to adaptation. Mother monkeys provide care that compensates for even severe injuries, and other members of the group… where predation pressure is low and food is plentiful, handicapped animals may live to be adults. (Berkson 1993: 5-6)

In their essay, An Institutional History of Disability,   Susan Parish and David Braddock seek to describe the history of institutional history of disability in Western society but end up at the beginning, which helps us identify ways in which disability is addressed as a social problem, that is to say, a problem in and of itself, but a problem of how society stigmatizes and thinks about disability like monoliths — over-generalizations which lead to prejudice.

As I read the chapter, I cannot help but ask what we can learn from history. Have we advanced much farther than the Middle Ages?  What does a diversity movement, a movement founded upon a need to accept everyone in an ever-complex globally connected social environment have to do with it?

The paradoxes in thinking about disability and treating the disabled are sadly thriving. Let me, for the sake of what should be a shorter blog post, and not the full-fledged essay, make a few comparisons.

The authors note that “Ancient Western notions of impairment in Greece and Rome accepted the belief that persons with congenital impairments embodied the wrath of the gods and should be killed.” (Braddock and Parish)

How many times do we believe that pain and suffering or disability, often equated with the former, is due to the fact that we have done something wrong? What about after we give birth and count our infant’s fingers and toes and “thank God” everything is okay.

“Yet this view coexisted with the fact that those who acquired their disabilities later in life were often integrated into society as workers, citizens, and soldiers. During the Middle Ages, widespread belief in demonology as an etiology of impairment was counterbalanced by religious movements preaching compassion and support towards persons with disabilities.” (Braddock and Parish)

In Sparta, infanticide was practiced on children born with deformities while in Athens, they were spared.  “Existing court records provide compelling evidence that the linkage between disability and entitlement to monetary support from the government was not absolute. Individuals with disabilities in Greece would have had to prove that they truly were economically needy and not just physically disabled to receive a small food grant.”   Men who were disabled by war were granted pensions and the status if disabled people varied.

How is this different and less complicated today? We revere the war hero but dread the disabled infant or child, at least enough to want to prevent them from being born, and this is not only true for Downs syndrome, but becoming ever more real for many other disabilities.

Yet, as in Sparta where one region prevented physical disability by killing those babies, there were others who kept disabled people among them. What might history tell us about the high rate of uninformed prevention in our society today, and the smaller rate where there are parents like Sarah Palin – a more high-profile individual anyway – would keep a disabled baby? It might be all the more reason to suggest that in terms of politics and accommodation, disability is here to stay – just like it was in Ancient Greece.

“Roman Law enumerated certain rights for people with disabilities…Justinian Code classified persons with disabilities in detail and delineated rights pertaining to different types and degrees of disability; for example, people with mental disabilities were not permitted to marry. Drawing on the Jewish discrimination between degrees of deafness (Daniels 1997), the Justinian Code identified five classes of deafness. The code became the basis of law in most European countries from the sixth to the eighteenth centuries.” (Braddock and Parish) Do we continue to divide the minutiae of differences between us to delineate one’s rights? Does not the very existence of a Diagnostic Statistical Manual promote such discrimination?

The New Testament used disability as a way to show the power of God, or Jesus, performing miracles in “healing.”  Disability is written to be caused by sin. Yet, in the same paradoxical vein, the New Testament asks society to be generous and kind towards impaired individuals while at the same time declaring “impairment was the wrath of God.” (Braddock and Parish).

Healing tales take take us down the road of autism diets and Jenny McCarthy and TACA, among others who proselytize that they have “healed” or “recovered” their autistic children with specific drugs and treatments. Healing must be, therefore, connected to demonization of the disabled, for they must be healed – they are not good the way they are. Once epilepsy, the condition McCarthy’s son is said to have, was believed to be caused by the devil himself. “Attempts to cure people with disabilities from early medieval times reflect supernatural beliefs in the abilities of magic and religious elements. For instance, Anglo-Saxons offered the following antidote to mental illness:

`A pleasant drink against insanity. Put in ale hassock, lupine, carrot, fennel, radish, betony, water-agrimony, carche, rue, wormwood, cat’s mint, elecampane, enchanter’s night-shade, wile teazle. Sing twelve Masses over the drink, and let the patient drink it. He will soon be better.  (Russell 1980:45).”

Consider this list of remedies purported for autism today:

Calcium Selenium Zinc Magnesium Iron CysteineSulfate Taurine B-12 B-6
Lysine Methionine Essential Fatty Acids Vitamin d Vitamin e Vitamin a
Vitamin c Vitamin Zinc Calcium/magnesium Probiotics Digestive
enzymes Vitamin b-6 Infrared Sauna Taurine Hyperbaric Oxygen Chamber
Melatonin Methyl-b-12 Folinic acid N-acetyl-cysteine Amino acids TMG or DMG
Coenzyme Q-10 Transfer factor Selenium Iron Chromium Multiple
vitamin/mineral N-acetyl-carnitine DMAE Silymarin 5-HTP Active
Charcoal Pantothenic acid Phosphatidylcholine Oral gamma globulin Pycnogenol
Creatine Carnosine SAMe Methyl-B-12 B-spectrum vitamins, including pantothenic acid
Qurecitin Curcumin Oregano oil Caprylic acid Olive leaf extract Garlic
Lauricidin Cod liver oil L-Arginine Oral gamma globulin Specific herbal
supplements L-Glutamine Quercitin Pyenogenol Magnezium Cucumin Niacin
Anti-inflammatory nutrients and flavonoids, including quercitin, pycnogenol & others
Lauricidin Arabinogalactan Acidophilus Bifidus Garlic Saccharomyces boulardii
Cobiotic companion L-Glutimine Lauricidin Panthothenic acid Gama OryzanolEvening
primrose oil Permeability Factors Biotin Omega-3 EFAs L0Theanine
GABA Inositol Fish oil Larginine Glutathione
Detox phases 1,2,3,4 ALA Silymarin Dimercaptosuccinic acid

The list is longer than what I’ve provided here.

The bell curved sharply for humankind at the dawn of a more modern eugenics era that lead to sterilization, incarceration and extermination of disabled people from the nineteenth century onward so let us measure these historical examples against the current concoctions and interventions for autism, and I think you’ll get my point: the paradoxical thoughts we have about disability – from hero, to mystical gift, to angel, to demon, to just plain tragedy, permeates our consciousness so much so that we have to keep studying, discussing and as with all things, shake up our thinking.

The effects of Obama becoming our first Black President, to women in high offices and now above the glass ceiling, to blind politicians and disabled leaders says it all. While we still have conflicted views about disability, diversity will prevail.

Since the dawn of mankind.


Berkson, G. 1974. “Social Responses of Animals to Infants with Defects.” Pp. 239-49 in The Effect of the Infant on its Caregivers, edited by M. Lewis and L.E. Rosenblum. New York: John Wilely.

Braddock, David L., and Parish, Susan L.,  2001.“An Institutional History of Disability” in Handbook of Disability Studies, edited by Garry L. Albrecht, Katherine Delores Seelman and Michael Bury, pp. 11-68. Sage.

Edwards, M.L. 1996. The Cultural Context of Deformity in the Ancient Greek World.” Ancient History Bulletin 10: 79-92.

Russell, J.B. 1972. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.