camp grant Aptitude Tests, Recruit Reception Center, Camp Grant, Ill. 1943

Disability Rights and the struggle for acceptance as viable, worthy human beings began in earnest in the late 19th century through the 40s. Foundations and resource centers began to spring up all over the United States as disabled people, or more accurately known as "cripples", were given recognition as a group that desired and deserved ethical treatment. This surge to protect the "innocents" was sporadic, dependent on the nature of the disability and the compassion of the parents, physicians, and financial status of the parents.

good blood

Parents who were financially well off had several options of care for the disabled child. Public opinion started to sway towards the advancement of the disabled by promoting "healthy habits". Genetics were often highlighted as a the reason a child was disabled or not. But when a child was born disabled from a family that seemed to have "all the right stuff", proper training and education were touted to cure the person of their affliction and become a viable person.


However, physicians having the final say of the survival of a disabled baby began to take precedence as the medical world developed new technologies in the field of medical diagnoses. Wanting to rid the world of people who were a drain on society, euthanasia began to rise in a horrifying way. In 1915, the Chicago Tribune's headlines tell of a "justified" death of a severely disabled baby boy:

Newspaper headline reads "Baby Dies; Physician Upheld - Autopsy Puts Boy In Class Of Defectives - Dr. Reinhardt Says Dr. Haiselden Did RIght to Allow Death" Article details how the physician was "right to allow death."

The physician referred to in this article was the world famous Chicago surgeon Dr. Harry J. Haiselden. Haiselden began a crusade opposing surgery of babies born "defective". There were advertisements and a movie entitled "The Black Stork". Dr. Haiselden had vast support from his colleagues, siting the saving of defective children would bring pain and suffering to the parents, a burden to society, and be a useless effort in the long run. Dr. Haiselden was brought to court when he allowed a baby to starve to death, claiming that he was simply an "onlooker" and did nothing to hasten or prolong the baby's death. He did this with full permission of the parents, who had three other "normal" babies. The mother contracted typhoid fever during pregnancy, and the baby was born deformed. Here is the article in the Tribune dated November 15, 1915, detailing the deformities of the baby. "Baby Dies; Physician Upheld" 10

Curiously, Dr. Haiselden received dozens of letters from disabled children and adults, praising him for his stand on euthanasia, and the sterilization of the insane, criminals, and the mentally retarded, or as he called them "imbeciles". Ironically, Dr. Haiselden was of German descent, and the hospital that allowed the death was also German based. Critics in later years regarded Dr. Haiselden a predessor of Hitler. Great debate on the validity of human life was sparked by this event. Dr. Haiselden talked of physicians allowing the death of children deemed defective by simply letting them bleed to death at birth by not clapping off the umbilical cord.

The court case in Chicago was a landmark decision that lead to many deaths of infants deemed disabled at birth--even those who were healthy, but a legacy of mental illness in the parents or their families had been established. One physician, Dr. W. C. Woodward, the District of Columbia health officer, said that the mother’s decision to place the child in the hands of the physician is evidence of the opening of a new era. “The fact that a mother who turned such a case over to the judgment of the physician, even to the extent of abiding by his decision not to operate, and even if that decision meant the earlier death of her child,” he said, “is evidence that the public conscience with respect to such cases is changing. The fact that such a case is regarded as within the debatable ground confirms this view. Few years ago, this condemnation of mother and physician would have been universal.”

The cleansing of America, and other industrialized nations, of the disabled began in public view. Similar to the abortion controversy of today, the lives of thousands of disabled babies were at the mercy of someone other than the mother.

blindgirls (47849 bytes)

Not all of disabled life was so grim during this time. Hundreds of people were fighting for the rights of the disabled by creating schools and institutions in the hopes of giving those with disabilities a chance at an independent life. The names of these schools and institutions are horrifying by today's standards: The Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, The State Lunatic Asylum in Utica New York, Institution for Idiots,etc. The word cripple was common, as were invalid, but the caregivers of the times were merely responding to the needs of people with disabilities using accepted terminology.

A silhouette of a blind man with text of how Social Security will help blind people.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was not just the longest running President of the United States: he was a post-polio victim. He was rarely seen in public in his wheelchair (he never allowed public photographs), and used steel leg braces to give the appearance of an able-bodied man. But he championed many legislative and personal funding for rehabilitation centers that were ahead of their time. One of the most famous was the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in Georgia.  FDR began visiting the Springs in 1924, then a resort-style property touted for it's healing powers of those who suffered from polio and arthritis, some recovering enough to be ambulatory. Roosevelt never walked again, but he so loved the soothing waters that he bought the property in 1926. He envisioned a therapeutic resort for polio survivors to come to and had the entire resort remodeled for the disabled. In 1927 he created the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation to operate the therapeutic program. Originally founded as the Warm Springs resort, part of the Merriweather Inn in 1893, it was re-dedicated adding the name Roosevelt in 1930.9

FDR resort Architectural Suggestions -- Handicap Bathrooms make their appearance in architecture

The word "accessibility" found new meaning through Roosevelt and his vision. In an article describing the benefits of Warm Springs, acronyms for disabled medical terms made the papers:

"I like that word, “accessibility.” It should be a real part in the life of every paral(paraplegic). The paral, like anyone else, should feel that all people and places, thoughts and actions, arts and sciences, are open to him. Physical handicap should raise no barrier against him.

Here at Warm Springs most things are accessible. The buildings are arranged for the convenience and comfort of the patients, so that they may wheel from one to another with the minimum of effort. For example, the door leading into Georgia Hall from the colony side operates by means of a photo-electric cell. When the light beam is broken, the door automatically swings open to allow patients to pass through. 

That brings me to the people at the Foundation, the patients, staff, cottagers, and everyone concerned in the work carried on here. There has been a great deal written about the congeniality of the people at Warm Springs. I will admit that at times they are congenial, but most of the time they verge on inaccessibility. For example, when a new patient arrives here, no one immediately greets him or tries to make his first few days here a pleasant experience. All of the other patients, having planned their afternoons or evenings, do not think to include this new patient in their plans. "I feel like a 'bump on a log' because people are here from three weeks to two months before I meet them," is the remark of a Warm Springs old-timer. Why? Why does this condition exist? Are we a happy family in name alone? We are in many ways a happy family, but the old-timer of Warm Springs, the staff, and others have made their own close circles of personal friends and are reluctant to open this circle to include the new-comer. This shortcoming is pardonable when we consider the constant rush as activities, exercises, walking, brace-fittings, and what-not that are carried on here day after day. 

Is there a remedy for this situation? Yes, I think there is. If we, here at Warm Springs, could only make ourselves accessible to the other person, and interchange our worries, troubles, likes and dislikes, hopes and ideals, perhaps we could then call ourselves an "ideal happy family." 9

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2003 Barbara J. McKee