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Healing Spas and Ugly Clubs: How Victorians Taught Us to Treat People With Disabilities

Before the Industrial Revolution, people with disabilities were considered just another part of the fabric of society. They were given jobs they could do, and often ridiculed, and few outside their families gave them much thought. But during the Victorian era, more and more people got involved with doing something about them, which took many forms, some helpful, and some not so helpful.  

In fact, society didn’t have a concept of “lacking ability” until industrialization, which, by the 19th century, had created an obsessive demand for “able-bodied workers” who could rapidly churn out mountains of goods. Unfortunately, in the 1800s the sciences of biology and medicine hadn’t kept pace with advances in mechanical technology, so one infection or unfortunate encounter with a factory machine could lead to invalidism, loss of a limb, or early death. As people with disabilities became more visible and regarded as problematic, able-bodied citizens started to feel compassion for what they perceived as tragic lives. What to do with all these “unproductive” bodies?

Everyone had different ideas. Social reformers in the 19th century attempted to “normalize” people with disabilities through rehabilitation, education, and discreet new prosthetics. Inventors created all sorts of bizarre quack devices to help people “overcome” their disabilities. Certain educators even waged a war against sign language to force deaf people to learn how to speak like regular folk. Darwin-inspired eugenicists supported sterilizing anyone thought to have inherited undesirable traits, which physiognomists asserted could be read on one’s face or body. Many people with obvious physical disabilities and deformities still made a living by being gawked at and mocked in freak shows, while men with deformities but deep pockets raised their own esteem by joining Ugly Clubs, even as cities were starting to pass “ugly laws” against “unsightly beggars.”

An article at Collectors Weekly looks at all these reactions to people with any kind of disability, some of which led to consequences we are still dealing with today.

(Image credit: Wellcome Images)


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