Disability Myths

Thomas C. Nelson
(Thom advocates strongly on behalf of those with any type of
disability and has been responsible for most articles in 
this area.  Thank you friend!  C.. ) 

"How many times can we say, request, insist, proclaim, scream that we do not want pity; that we do not like the paternalistic attitudes of others; that we are disabled people whose physical disabilities do not make us lesser people…"[1]


            Disability myths may change or stagnate over time. The rate of change from what are often negative myths to ones that portray people who have disabilities in a sense that is seen as more positive by them is often slow, but not always. In speaking about a woman named Deborah who has Schizophrenia, Rollo May states that, "…myths are necessary ways of bridging the gap between our biological and our personal lives….Myths are essential to the process of keeping our souls alive and bringing us new meaning in a difficult and often meaningless world."[2] I think that this is an agreeable statement where all of us, disabled or not, are concerned.


Myth and disability go back quite a ways. I don't find this surprising at all, people with disabilities have been around just as long as people without them have. Sometimes it is a wonder to see the imagination of people who do not have a disability and the ways that they come up with explanations for people who do. In, "Myth, Literature and the African World", I found a myth that gives one explanation of where people with disabilities come from. The book states:


"The uncancelled error of Obatala, god of soul purity, was his weakness for drink. To him belongs the function of moulding human beings, into whose forms life is breathed by the supreme deity himself, Olodumare. One day, however, Obatala allowed himself to take a little too much of that potent draught, palm wine. His craftsman's fingers slipped badly and he moulded cripples, albinos and the blind. As a result of this error, Obatala rigidly forbids palm wine to his followers."[3]


People with disabilities often seem to get attached to a negative process of thought. Here, people with disabilities are attached to a drunken god who created them in a moment of intoxication. The god then forbids his followers to drink the palm wine that caused the "mistake" in the first place. To me, this god Obatala is clearly in a lesser position because of his drinking habit. At least this myth, unlike some in America, doesn't elaborate on negative myths about the people who have disabilities themselves.


America's past is filled with recurrences of a damaging myth of disabled children being "cute" or "lovable little things in need of help", who are incapable of living constructive lives. Campaigns for children with developmental disabilities, polio, cerebral palsy and many others have been common. It is true that in a more distant past, parents of children with disabilities often hid those children from their neighbors, so campaigning for children with disabilities was a start down the road to public acknowledgement of them and their disabilities. Sadly, these campaigns and telethons promote the myth of kids who have disabilities as being cute and in desperate need, and who are incapable. Instead, these campaigns might have promoted children with disabilities as being children, free of the portrayal of being pitiful or incapable.


As of this time, Jerry Lewis has raised one billion dollars for the MDA, spawning a series of other telethons in support of children with a number of disabling conditions. A great many American's support Mr. Lewis' efforts, and believe that poster children and telethons are doing children with disabilities a large service. Mr. Even Kemp Jr. doesn't agree. He feels that telethons are promoting the stereotype of people with muscular dystrophy as being tragic figures whose "victims" are continually sick. Mr. Kemp states, "Playing to pity may raise money, but it also raises a wall of fear between the public and us."[4]


Yet while the myth of the disabled child as being incapable of constructive action prevails to an extent, actions towards the destruction of that myth have begun. Children with disabilities are being "mainstreamed" into public schools alongside children who do not have disabilities. The telethons still exist, but they are beginning to falter, and will hopefully be out of vogue as a means to raise money by the time I have grown old. Contrary to the dismay many people express at the notion of a national healthcare plan, I really do hope that America has one before I die. Such a healthcare plan could go a long way towards removing any perceived need for a telethon, and might help to end the myth of people with disabilities as being "pitiful" or "incapable." Perhaps the most noticeable single thing that is keeping people with disabilities out of the workforce, and from seeing an end to the myth of their being "incapable", is medical care costs. The second most noticeable thing is the perceptions of employers, who believe in the myth of disabled people being incapable. Despite the medical and employment woes, there are groups of people who have disabilities that are experiencing a shift in the attitudes behind the myths portraying them.


The history of people who are deaf is very long indeed, and for the entirety of that time there has been a myth of people who are deaf also being dumb. As early as 355 B.C. , Aristotle is quoted as saying that those, "born deaf become senseless and incapable of reason." In ancient lands people who were deaf met with what may be the roots of the myth that deaf people are also dumb. In ancient Israel, people who were born deaf weren't allowed to own property or do any form of business. They also weren't liable, and weren't punished for any damage or injury they caused. In ancient Greece, deaf people were considered to be "non-persons", and were rejected by their parents. Deaf children, and other disabled children, were killed. Roman law stated that deaf people had no legal rights or obligations, couldn't marry, and were required to have guardians look after them. From the very start, deaf people have had a label of "deaf and dumb" placed on them. Given time, this perception could only become myth.[5]


The year 1500, and a physician named Girolamo Cardano, brought the first physician acknowledgement of a deaf person's ability to reason. In 1755 Charles Michel Abbe del'Epee established the first free school for the deaf in the world in Paris, France. Five years later another school opened by Thomas Braidwood opened in England. It wasn't until 1817 that the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons, the only school for the deaf in America, opened in Hartford. Vocational training wasn't added at this school until five years later. Finally, in 1894, the National Deaf-Mute College became known as Gallaudet College.[6]


Myth is created by people and their perception of others and events; I found a historical note that confirmed this very clearly. In Joseph P. Shapiro's book, "No Pity", he writes:


"For 250 years, deafness was commonplace on Martha's Vinyard. The first deaf resident, a fisherman named Johathan Lambert, settled there in 1694. He carried a recessive gene for deafness and, as a result of frequent intermarriage among isolated islanders, this trait spread through generations of Lambert's descendants. The result was an easy, almost natural fusion of deaf and hearing cultures."[7]


The people of Martha's Vinyard interacted very well with each other, and had no need of the myth of "deaf and dumb." Those residents who were deaf in Martha's Vinyard society were given the same opportunities to work, live and have fun as the non-deaf residents. I think that it is far past time to end or replace all negative disability oriented myths, they have become tragic in their effects on people with disabilities. "Deaf and dumb" is just such a negative myth, and deaf people in the world today are working hard to present it as such.


One event in my life that helped me to understand that people with disabilities can most definitely participate in society at all levels was my introduction to a deaf Department of Vocational Rehabilitation counselor. The counselor was well educated, friendly, well dressed and in a position I had always thought of as a "non-disabled" one. His mere presence is a confirmation that the myth of "deaf and dumb" is cruel and outdated. The new deaf myth may well surround the tale of deaf persons and the way their abilities were being denied in the past. No longer will they be subject to the myth of "deaf and dumb." Instead, the myth will become the old myth presented as a horror of the past. Today there are a number of deaf students graduating from colleges meant for people who are either deaf or hearing; these students often continue on to become professionals. They are also very aware of the negative myth of the past that haunts them. There has been a similar transition from negative to positive myth concerning people who are blind.


Among the different books we have read for the quarter I found an archetypal image of the seeing impaired person of the past. In the book, "The Way to Rainy Mountain", on page 58, I read a story of a man who was blinded by a "great whirlwind". His people suddenly had no need of him, and his wife lied to him about his hunting prowess even after he had put an arrow into a buffalo and killed it for food more than once. His wife left him after a few days, telling her people how enemies had killed her husband.[8]


Who knows how old this mythic tale is? One thing that is almost a constant in human history concerning people with disabilities, is that in the past they have been viewed as a burden or worse. Since the times when this myth was first created, a potential for a new archetype has developed in the form of Helen Keller. The story of Helen Keller presents a picture of a woman who was both blind and deaf, yet manages to learn to read, write and speak. Helen studied Latin and German. She went to college, and graduated with honors. Helen then went on to teach others who had disabilities similar to her own how to live in and enjoy both American and Japanese societies. For many people in the world, Helen Keller is a perfect example of what it can mean to be blind, deaf or both.


When I went to the library to find a copy of, "Toward the Light", one of many writings about Helen, I found that they had three copies of it in the Bellingham Library, all of which were checked out. Helen's story has been shown on television, her stature is entirely impressive, and she promotes an image of dignity. Helen has become a positive myth for many people. While this is good it can also be unfortunate in that non-disabled people make statements such as, "I'm so proud of her ability to fight", not realizing that disability culture of today consistently states that people with disabilities do not wish to be viewed as either heroes or villains. I see the myth of Helen Keller as being a step toward positive recognition of people who are blind and/or deaf, a step made plain by the contrast between Helen's story and the tale in "The Way to Rainy Mountain." Myths of the past have been very cruel to people with other disabilities as well, such as mental health disabilities, and some of these myths survive today.


The myth of the mentally ill person who is violent is fantastically portrayed in, "The Tell Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe. Edgar, with great stealth in the middle of the night, slowly stalks an elderly neighbor whom he feels has never wronged him, and that he loves. The older man's eyes made his blood run cold, so he states. For several nights he would stealthily sneak down to his neighbor's apartment and peer in at the man, stating in the book:


 "You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded, with what caution, with what foresight, with what dissimulation I went to work!"[9]


Mr. Poe's character then goes on to kill the older man, and just as stealthily hide his body under the floorboards of the man's apartment. He lies fluently to the police, who have almost bought his story, when the older mans heart, through beating loudly, drives him to reveal his crime. Of course it is all a story, but a very damaging myth it represents.


There are a great many repetitious versions of the story of the insane killer in human experience. It should be clear that only a very, very small portion of people with mental health disorders actually commit violent crimes, in fact no more than the "non-disabled" portion of society commits, yet the myth is perpetuated through literature and other means. History is one of those other means.


Adolf Hitler is an example of the devil archetype and the myth of the madman in history. In, "Silence on the Psychiatric Holocaust", Steve Mendelsohn writes:


"Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the publication of 'A Sign for Cain', psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's book dealing with human violence. The most significant chapter details the mass extermination of psychiatric inmates by German psychiatrists before Hitler's Final Solution. Wertham estimates the number of people mercilessly killed in what has come to be misleadingly called the "euthanasia action" in Germany and Austria alone at more than 275,000, a figure corroborated by the Czech War Crimes Commission."[10]


The mass killing of people with disabilities and people in general by the Nazi's has become a myth, and Hitler an archetype of the violent predator and a version of an archetype for the devil. Were Hitler and his cohorts insane in the same way that people with Manic-depressive illness or Schizophrenia are viewed as insane? I think that Hitler and his buddies are in a category of their own when it comes to myths about insane killers, yet they promote the negative myth of mental illness and violence that a great many people believe.


The fact that some people think differently is hard to swallow, says Tanis Doe in, "Thoughts on Thinking Differently." She goes on to say:


"No matter how many articles are written and read, no matter how many media campaigns are held or accommodations are made, the very last disability to be understood, accommodated and then accepted will be disorders of thought. We can't seem to accept the idea of thinking differently. By "We" I mean everyone, people who identify as having disabilities and people who don’t because we have a hierarchy of disability that puts mental illness and mental disabilities among the least desirable."[11]


Despite the nearly manic prevalence of myths surrounding mental health and violence, or simply mental health including intense stigma and stereotyping, I like to hold out some hope for a better myth, a better archetype and a better hope for a positive vision of people who have mental health disorders. A new mental health archetype, a new mental health myth, could bring people with mental health disorders out of an exceptionally long darkness of negativity. As Rollo May says in, "The Cry for Myth":


"Myths are our self-interpretation of our inner selves in relation to the outside world. They are narrations by which our society is unified. Myths are essential to the process of keeping our souls alive and bringing us new meaning in a difficult and often meaningless world."[12]


Kay R. Jamison is a woman who has Manic-Depressive Illness, also known as Bipolar disorder, which as recently as 1970 was almost indistinguishable in the educated minds of psychiatry from Schizophrenia. Kay Jamison worked on the mental health unit of a hospital, not really understanding her own mental health disorder. When she did realize that something was not what it could be, she sought help and was diagnosed with Manic-Depressive illness. Kay went through a period of time that was difficult, as do many people with this disorder, but she fought for a life that pleased her despite her disability.


Kay found that life, and part of it was further education. She pursued a Ph.D. and is now the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Not to be seen as a hero or exceptionally courageous, Kay Jamison is an excellent example of what a person with a "severe mental health disorder" can do. For this reason I see Kay as a potential archetype, the mentally ill person who can participate in society and do great, creative things. Among Kay's works are, "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperment[13]", and, "Manic-Depressive Illness." "Touched With Fire" discusses art and the connection it may have with madness, including some discussion on historical figures thought to have the disorder. "Manic-Depressive Illness" is a reference book on the disorder and is used by medical personnel across the world.


I would greatly enjoy seeing myths arise from the likes of Kay Jamison. Myths that demonstrate how well people with mental health disorders can do, how creative they are, or how positive an influence they can be, would be just the turn-around from the barrage of negative myths we need in order to live with one another in society. In a way, this is already happening. People who frequent Internet bulletin boards associated with manic-depressive illness or bipolar disorder have begun this process. They refer to her works, her life, and her suggestions in articles with the respect they would give to someone who has indeed done great things. She has become a cultural myth without the negativity that people without disabilities employ so often in relation to those who have a disability. I think it is a joy to watch.


In the past, America's people with disabilities that require more intensive treatment and care, such as Spina Bifida or Cerebral Palsy, were hidden away in back bedrooms so that the neighbors would not see them. They were told they would never amount to anything, that they couldn't do anything, and that they were a burden on the family. Many of these people ended up in institutions that very often abused them physically and mentally. In short, many of these people sat and did nothing or got abused their entire lives. The negative myth that promoted this type of "care" from non-disabled people is the tired old myth of people with severe disabilities being incapable of constructive action. What a powerful myth this has proven to be.


In an article titled, "Hate", Barbara Faye Waxman states:


"Ongoing research estimates that sexual violence directed at disabled people is one and a half times that directed at non-disabled people of the same sex and age. There are reports that mental retardation increased by eightfold the probability of an abusive attack."[14]


In my very own Whatcom County there is a service provided by the Whatcom Transportation Authority, a service that uses large vans to transport people with disabilities to various places in Bellingham. One van driver, a man, attacked a young disabled woman, tried to rape her, and then drove her to her destination. What made this man think that he could get away with such a bold attack? I suggest that it is the negative myth of people with severe disabilities being unable to take any constructive action. The driver was fired, but I know of no legal pursuit of the case. Negative myths, as you can see, are often the stepping stones to hate crimes against people with disabilities.


The negative myths people with more severe disabilities still endure are horrible, but there is potential for a new archetype, and a new myth. Stephen Hawking is an example of someone who's disability hasn't stopped them from pursuing lofty goals, and is the perfect example of how you can live with a disability in happiness and social acceptance, if society is willing to accept you. Mr. Hawking, in his book, "A Brief History of Time", states:


"Apart from being unlucky enough to get ALS, or motor neuron disease, I have been fortunate in almost every other respect."


Indeed he has been fortunate to live during the time he has and in a society that will accept him. Mr. Hawking has had an advantage in life because he was able to walk, run and speak unassisted up until he was part of the way through college. It is clear that his knowledge and abilities surrounding physics are respected by both disabled and non-disabled people around the world, and his current standing can be seen by many as a potential archetype for the severely disabled person who is very capable of producing constructive effort. I hope the new myth will be one of the severely disabled person who is capable in their own way despite what the past may say. I hope that the new myth is the one of the old myth being a horror of the past.



Disability myths may change or stagnate over time. The rate of change from negative myths of the past to positive ones can be slow, but not always. Myth and disability go back a long ways, just as long as the existence of humanity does, and somehow people with disabilities often seem to get attached to a negative thought process.


America's past repeatedly presents a damaging myth of disabled children being pitiful, in need of help, and incapable of constructive action. In the past these children were hidden in back bedrooms, away from public view. Public campaigns were a start down the road to public acknowledgement of children with disabilities, but unfortunately they promoted the negative myth of these children being pitiful and incapable. Ideally, these campaigns should have promoted disabled children as children, and not attached such a negative myth to them. Children with disabilities of all types are being included in classrooms formerly denied to them through a process known as "mainstreaming." The campaigns of the past are beginning to falter in the world of today. A national healthcare plan could remove the perceived need to campaign for disabled children, and employers in these children's future might be more open to their participation.


Deaf people have had to deal with similar social denial, and a negative myth known as "deaf and dumb." From very early in human history the negative myth of "deaf and dumb" has enshrouded the deaf population of the world. Myth is created by people and the way they perceive others and events. The residents of Martha's Vinyard, both deaf and hearing, interacted quite well with each other, and without the negative myth of "deaf and dumb." One example of the development of a new myth for the deaf community might be the DVR counselor described above, who is a professional, and helps people of all disabilities find work. The new deaf myth, like the new myth for other people with disabilities, may well be one of the horror of the old myth.


People who are blind or seeing impaired have had to deal with the horror of a negative myth in their past. The negative myth of blindness is one of inability and pity. There is a potential new archetype for both blind and deaf people in the form of Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf and yet managed to pursue an education many college students would envy. Helen was also an example of how to help others who have similar disabilities as your own. More than anything, Helen was an example of a person with a disability who lived a wonderful life despite the negative myth of incapability.


The negative myth of incapability has been twisted by fear when it comes to mental health disabilities. There is a very pervasive negative myth, one of the "insane killer", surrounding mental illness. Only a small portion of people with mental health disabilities ever commit violent acts, indeed no more than people who do not have a mental health disability, yet this negative myth continues. There is a distinct difference between a "Hitler" type of mentally ill killer and the person who has a more common form of mental health disorder, and this point has been made repeatedly in public, yet the negative myth remains. The myth of fear and the "insane killer" are slowly beginning to fade; however, and a new myth is growing.


Kay Jamison, who has been diagnosed with Manic-Depressive Illness, pursued a Ph.D. after being diagnosed, and is now the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is an excellent example of what someone with a "severe mental health disorder" can do, and I feel she is a potential archetype for a new myth describing the person with a mental health disability as being both educated and productive. People who frequent Internet bulletin boards associated with bipolar disorder refer to her works and her life. She has become a cultural myth despite either the "insane killer" myth or the generic negative myth of dependence and incapability that all people with disabilities experience.


People with severe physical disabilities, like children of the past who had a disability, were often hidden at home or institutionalized. An often hateful and physically abusive society pursued the ugly old myth which says that such people are a burden and incapable of constructive action. Mr. Stephen Hawking has placed some new perspective on that hateful myth by living an educated, constructive life - and having a family. Stephen Hawking might well develop into an archetype for a new myth of people with severe physical disabilities being very capable.


Throughout all of the time people with disabilities have been a part of various societies around the world there have been many forms of negative myth surrounding them. Whether these negative myths portray specific disabilities or not, there is one overlying negative myth that has touched every single person who has a disability in some way. The myth that people with disabilities are incapable, a burden, or are pitiful has marred the quality of life they should have a right to. Highly visible members of the disability community are beginning to develop a new myth about disabled people. The new myth is very much the opposite of the old and negative myth; it is a myth with a strong message. The new myth states that people with disabilities are very capable of producing constructive action, that we are not to be viewed as a burden, and that we most certainly are not pitiful. Part of the new myth will be the old myth viewed as a horror of the past. As disability culture produces more people capable of being considered as archetypes for a positive myth in connection with disability the number of positive myths will grow, and the negative myths will fade.

[1] Hooper, Edward L. Seeking the Disabled Community. Louisville, KY: The Avocado Press, 1994

[2] May, Rollo. The Cry For Myth. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991

[3] Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature And The African World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995

[4] Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity. New York, New York: Times Books, 1994

[5] Attitudes in Ancient Times Towards Deafness. Deaf World Web. 4 Nov. 2000


[6] Chronological History. Deaf World Web. 4 Nov. 2000


[7] Shapiro, Joseph P. No Pity. New York, NY: Times Books, 1994

[8] Momaday, Scott N. The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press, 1976

[9] Poe, Edgar Allan. The Tell-Tale Heart. Printed in the USA: Barnes & Noble Press, 1992

[10] Mendelsohn, Steve. Silence on the Psychiatric Holocaust. Louisville, KY: The Avocado Press, 1994

[11] Doe, Tanis. Thoughts on Thinking Differently. Louisville, KY: The Avocado Press, 1994

[12] May, Rollo. The Cry for Myth. New York: Dell Publishing, 1991

[13] Jamison, Kay R. Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. New York: The Free Press, 1994

[14] Waxman, Barbara Faye. Hate. Louisville, KY: The Avacado Press, 1994


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