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Disabilities are by no means a new phenomenon, but how they are treated and perceived by the public and governments has changed drastically over the centuries. Immense progress has been made in getting disability rights legislation passed, yet even today those living with a disability face hurdles when it comes to going through their every day lives.

Everything from accessibility to employment has become more available to people living with disabilities, but the question still remains as to how they were treated in the 18th century.

Life With a Disability in the 18th Century

Much like today, disability in the 18th century supplant class and status and could affect anyone from the lowest socio-economic setting to the highest rungs of the social ladder. The way that people were treated, however, was significantly different depending on their social and financial standing. For those living outside of the aristocracy and upper crust of society, a disability often went hand in hand with destitution as the majority of work available involved strenuous labor that many living with disabilities were unable to perform.

Additionally, with the rise of industry and factories came unsafe working conditions and many workers were maimed while on the job and due to inadequate healthcare facilities often had to amputate injured limbs. Individuals with disabilities who were born into wealthy families had a much easier time finding employment thanks to their connections and often pursued academic pursuits freely. While life for people living in the upper and lower classes in the 18th century was already disparate, the privileges and hardships of the respective classes were highlighted for those living with a disability.

Unfortunately, 18th-century society wasn’t particularly kind to those living with serious disabilities. While those with amputated limbs or those missing an eye had some luck integrating into society, individuals who bore less outwardly visible disabilities such as epilepsy or deafness faced increased hardships as they were often committed to asylums even if they were able to function within society.

The Government’s Role Has Changed

When it came to taking care of those with disabilities, the government in colonial America that eventually became the United States of America effectively began with paying out pensions to veterans. In an attempt to increase enlistment and reduce instances of desertion, the Continental Congress granted half pay for life should a soldier lose a limb or become seriously disabled in any other manner.

In the modern era, while military veterans still struggle to find adequate medical treatment, more is done to try to take care of those whose service led to a disability. Instead of simply paying half of their salary for life and leaving it at that, there now exist many programs designed to help veterans, disabled or otherwise, acquire gainful employment after their service. This is a vital improvement as, even though medical technology and techniques have come a long way since the 18th century, those that go to war still often suffer from debilitating, life-long injuries that, without assistance, would effectively render soldiers returning from service incapable of working.

The federal government is now instrumental in the lives of those living with disabilities in a variety of ways. Yet it wasn’t until well into the 19th century before public advocates such as Helen Keller and Louis Braille began making headway in disability rights for civilians. While businesses in the 18th century had no requirement to accommodate those living with disabilities, modern businesses are required by the government to make reasonable accommodations such as wheelchair-accessible buildings and inclusive hiring practices.

The Evolving Definition Of Disabilities

The main reason that life for those living with disabilities today is so much different than for those living in the 18th century is the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, in 1990. While the fight for disability rights goes back much further, for the bulk of the 19th century many people living with disabilities were relegated to institutions that didn’t function to provide therapy or treatment but to simply restrain and control those with disabilities.

Now, however, thanks to the ADA those with disabilities are afforded far more rights than they had in the past. Not only are businesses required to accommodate for disabilities, but the world of education also opened up in a way that it never had prior. Those living with disabilities today are now afforded the same civil liberty protections provided to others on the basis of sex, color, race, age, and religion.

Additionally, the very concept of disability has evolved significantly with the inclusion of learning disabilities and any other physical or mental impairment that significantly impacts someone’s ability to live their life into the definition of disability. While there is still a strict definition of disability in order to receive Social Security disability benefits, it is still far easier for those living with disabilities today than it has been in the past.

Disabilities today are not a death sentence, nor do they mean that someone suffering from one needs to be institutionalized and sequestered from the rest of society. Fortunately, the way that disability is treated and approached has improved significantly since the 18th century and for the most part, those living with disabilities are given the same opportunities and rights as any other person.