Think eugenics are disabilities history? Maybe not yet

John Lemus
Guest Columnist and President, People First of Washington

Disability History bills have passed in many other states. Self Advocacy In Motion, a partnership between Disability Rights Washington, People First of Washington, and  many school districts, brought the idea of a State Disability History Bill to our youth advisory board. They decided this would be something to take on in Washington and they ran with it. This bill was a youth led initative, pushed in the 2008 legislative session by high school youth who were participants of the SAM project. Youth from our Northshore High School Club met with Senator McAuliffe who agreed to sponsor the Disability History Bill.

The bill is important to me: How many high school students can say they were instrumental in getting a bill passed through the legislature? Our Bothell high school club even produced a video that went around to legislators. 

The bill requires all primary and secondary education systems to teach disability history. I hear from many students I work with that they are bullied and harassed everyday by students who don’t understand their disabilities. I believe implementation of this law will alleviate some of the misconceptions, prejudices and stigmas around disability.  With understanding comes respect and compassion. Learning this at a young age will help students understand disability better throughout their lives. After all, disability is a natural part of life.

So how does this tie in with the eugenics movement?

I will tell you this: Through this process youth were educated about an issue and how it would affect them. As a result, change was made and a bill was passed; but as we all know there is still work to be done

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine this: what if you had your reproductive rights taken away? What would your life look like right now?

What if your body was altered to keep you small and manageable?  What would your life be like right now?

Now, imagine the tens of thousands of Americans with disabilities who for the past century in Washington State have been robbed of their reproductive rights, or have had their bodies altered in other ways without their consent. Sounds like something that shouldn’t be allowed, given our constitutional rights. It is an atrocity that we, as a State, once had a law on the books that allowed this to happen.

We need to make systems change. We need to advocate for a formal apology from the State, to people with disabilities who have suffered, because of these awful laws.

Throughout my four years working in the disability field I have met a few couples with disabilities who cannot have children.  They were perfectly capable of parenting; but one or both had been sterilized. They had THEIR bodies altered without their consent, without prior knowledge, stealing from them their dreams of parenthood of a family. The only explanation given, from those they love who made the decision for them, was often: “it's for your own protection.”

This is one of the biggest things that Self Advocacy organizations are battling right now: Our God-given right to have children, or to have our bodies develop normally.

Times are changing -- slowly -- but changing none the less. We people with disabilities are taking back our rights in all aspects of our lives.

It is our duty as professional advocates and people with disabilities who are educated on these issues to educate others, so that systems change can be made to take back our rights. Until then people with disabilities should know that this has happened in the past, is still happening now, or even worse, has already happened to them without their consent or even knowledge.

So in closing I would ask this.  Let's all think about how we can get people with disabilities of all ages educated about the issues around eugenics and how they personally affect them so they can get involved and make systems and policy changes.

Freedom from abuse and neglect