Having members of your family, whether now or ancestors in the past with a disability is no different from having a family member with no issues at all but unfortunately society didn’t always agree.
To start with, what is disability? In basic terms is it any condition which affects a person’s ability to function on a day to day basis and is usually physical, mental or sensory in nature. Some definitions will be much greater in length but this is what I went with in my Postgraduate dissertation. How a person deals with a disability varies from person to person and is unique to them. Some embrace it and don’t let it stop them, others find it more limiting.
Throughout history many people with disability were not treated with the care and cutesy they deserved. Some people, especially those with mental health people were often put into the asylum or workhouse just to get rid of them and it wasn’t just the working class that did that.
How many of you have heard of Prince John, the youngest son of King George V and Queen Mary? Probably not many of you. Prince John was born in 1905 and had epilepsy. As a result he was hidden away at the family’s Sandringham home where he had a governess and played with the local children. Although up until the age of 11 he was seen with the rest of the family. John died aged 13 in 1919 from a seizure. There is evidence though that the family felt they were doing what was best for Prince John. Fresh air and less stress could all aid him and attempt to reduce the number of seizures he had. This isn’t the only case of a member of the upper classes being hidden away. Anyone who wasn’t classed as perfect was shielded from public view. Must keep up appearances and all that.
Against this though is King Richard III. He had a well-known spinal deformity but he managed to rule the country for 2 years. No matter what you think of him and how he ruled he was still the most powerful man in the country.
If you consider what was happening in the lower classes and thus with our ancestors then things were different. The census returns can shed some interesting light on what was happening. If you look at the census the end column you may have noticed words like blind, deaf, dumb, imbecile, idiot and lunatic. Obviously the first 3 relate to known sensory conditions, but the others. Well they could include physical or mental conditions, birth defects or even what we would call learning difficulties. What to do with such people? The census is probably the only way you would ever know if there was any disability in your ancestry unless family stories mention those with disability.
Well some people suffering from these conditions were cared for at home by their family. They were able to live as normal a life as they could and hopefully were happy. There were such things as peg legs and hooks for arms and there were wheelchairs. Those with mental condition may even have as normal a life as possible with jobs and families of their own. But this wasn’t always the case.
Unfortunately many with physical and mental conditions ended up in the asylum (mental conditions) or the workhouse (both types of condition). As you can imagine life wasn’t great for them. Treated like second class citizens and demeaned, they probably would have felt life couldn’t get any worse. For those with physical difficulties they would probably spent most of their life in a bed unless they were able to do manual tasks and them they would have been put to work.
It’s those with mental conditions who suffered most. In the Victorian times in the asylum all sorts of hateful, cruel things were done to them. They would electrocute them with high voltages without sedation or pain medication. I know they used electric shock therapy now but it’s done under safe conditions and with care. Life was probably not worth living. They may have had severe conditions such as schizophrenia, but they may just have had depression or even grief.
Let’s consider the grief aspect. Queen Victoria was well known for having mental health issues. She probably suffered from grief and depression from the day her husband Prince Albert died until the day she died. No one tried to put her in an asylum but there were probably people in these institutions who were suffering the same way she was.
There are so many ways a disabled person can have a full life. Wheelchairs, assistant dogs, friends, family and support structures through treatment and therapy (hopefully). Service personnel now are treated for their PTSD not classed as insane and lock away as they were in the past. Charities such as Guide Dogs (I sponsor a black lab called Hattie) and the fantastic organisation Warrior Canine Connections who raise dogs to help service personnel in the USA with PTSD (look at https://explore.org/livecams/warrior-canine-connection/service-puppy-cam-3 to watch the future service dogs growing up).
No matter what a person’s disability is treat them the same as you want to be treated with respect and care. They are human and don’t ignore them, they are not invisible and remember if you are descended form a disabled ancestor they were a strong person who overcame what life threw at them and managed to have a family and thus you are alive today.
Hello and thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings on genealogy and history in general. I hope you find it informative and hopefully funny!