History: Ableism and Incarceration

Bitch Media Magazine has a good feature on disability and incarceration. Cheryl Green, the author, takes us through some of the history of de-institutionalization, then writes this excellent paragraph [my emphasis]:

As a culture, we never addressed the ableist biases that led us to want to lock up disabled people in the first place. The politics of who gets assigned the label of “disability” ties in to racism, homophobia, and sexism. Until the 1970s, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and for many years, a crime. Many LGBT people were incarcerated in prisons and psych wards. Likewise, 19th century doctors had great confidence that the only reason an enslaved African or African-American might run away was because they were suffering from an alleged mental illness that they called “drapetomania.” And we all know the fabulous diagnosis of hysteria, something that can only happen to someone with a uterus. In early-20th-century thinking, someone’s uterus supposedly detached from its spot in the abdomen, navigated itself to the brain, and destroyed the person’s ability to think rationally.

Today, these biases still all work tragically in tandem. The practice of forced sterilization, once thought to be over, continues into the 21st century for incarcerated women with disabilities who are poor, mostly women of color. And just look at the reality of police violence: In recent years, we’re finally getting national media coverage on how Black and Latinx people are far more likely to be killed by police than white people. What’s hardly ever reported is police brutality against people with disabilities, even though estimates now find that between one-half and one-third of people killed by police have a disability.

That first line is a really good sentence, in particular, as a way to draw the connection between institutionalization and incarceration. Too often, the narrative suggests that in the 70s/80s a lot of people were in mental institutions, then they closed, those people went out into the communities, and over the last 30 years have been locked up. In fact, it’s not that Joe and Jane Doe were institutionalized and released. It’s that the same forces that pushed Joe and Jane into institutions now push George and Gina into prisons.

As always, read the whole article.

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