The Long Shadow of the Eugenics Movement

CN: Ableism, Eugenics, Ableist Language, Functioning Labels

I wasn’t going to write anything for Blogging Against Disableism Day because I typically find it difficult to blog if I don’t have something specific that I feel needs saying.  Last night, however, I friend sent me this truly rubbish diagram illustrating the Autism spectrum, so now I do have something to say.

A bullshit illustration of what some assholes think the Autism spectrum is. It’s a rainbow with “High functioning autism, Asperger’s or PDD” at one end and “Classic Autism” at the other. Along the bottom is some kind of ruler containing the following descriptions: extreme ability in some areas, above average IQ, average IQ, mild learning disability, moderate learning disability, and severe learning disability. The image is titled “Autistic Spectrum Conditions.”

It took me a little while to realise just why I found this image so disturbing.  There were the usual shitty elements: functioning labels, use of nonscientific rubbish like IQ, but there was something more and that was how familiar this image is.  Last month I wrote a post about institutionalisation for Un-Boxed Brain’s Neurodiversity A-Z and in my post I included a eugenics propaganda poster created by the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene.  The poster provides information on “four different types of mental deficiency” and includes images and “mental ages”.  I’m honestly somewhat surprised it doesn’t contain IQ measurements since they were so heavily used by those within the eugenics movement.

04 Eugenics Poster
A poster promoting eugenics created by the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene, who conducted “activities to secure better provision for the control of Feeblemindedness”.  The poster warns of “four types of mental deficiency” which are idiocy, Mongolian imbecility (Down Syndrome), imbecility and the moron (high grade feeble-minded).  The poster goes on to state: “The feeble-minded can be divided into three groups (1) Idiots with a mental age of less than three years; (2) Imbeciles with a mental age between three and seven years; (3) Morons with a mental age between seven and eleven years.  The moron group has been largely neglected in Canada and has contributed greatly to criminality, vice and pauperism.”

It seems blatantly obvious to me that a direct line can be drawn between this poster and the Autistic Spectrum Conditions illustration.  Indeed, a line can be clearly drawn between the general rhetoric of the eugenics movement and the way disabled people are talked about today.  In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s grades became functioning labels and defective became retarded.  Words changed, but the dehumanising way in which they were used did not. The common assumption is that after the Shoah eugenics fell out of favor with society at large.  I don’t believe that to be the case and I think many disabled people would agree with me.  Methods like forced sterilisation, mass incarceration, and outright murder began to fall out of favor but  the goal of a world without disabled people never did.

You can still see it in the way disabled people are portrayed as dangerous, as a burden on society, and a drain on the system.  Denial of proper medical care for disabled people is rampant and in Europe 92% of pregnancies with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome are terminated.  Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton, argues that children with “severe disabilities” are not fully human and as such parents should be able to have them “put down”, a perspective that strongly mirrors that held by eugenicist Dr. Harry J. Haiselden and those who oversaw the Nazi’s Aktion T4 program.  So no, I do not think that eugenics ended in the aftermath of the Holocaust and I believe the ideology behind eugenics will continue to thrive so long as we live in a society which systematically devalues those with disabilities.

The Long Shadow of the Eugenics Movement