As I sat down to think about what I’m most grateful for, I realized that as important as a loving family, good health and meaningful employment are, there’s something even more important to me as a mother of a teen with disabilities —living in the United States in 2011.
In preparation for a presentation at the Los Angeles Jewish Federation’s upcoming Day of Learning on Dec. 4th, I’ve been researching how people with disabilities (specifically intellectual disabilities, or mental retardation) have been treated throughout history and it’s not a pretty picture:
• The ancient Greeks and Romans felt that children with intellectual disabilities were born because the gods had been angered. In Sparta, for example, a state council of inspectors examined newborn babies and if they suspected that the child was “defective”, the infant was thrown from a cliff to its death.
• During the Middle ages (476 – 1799 CE) more humane practices evolved (i.e., decreases in infanticide and the establishment of asylums), but many children with disabilities were still sold into slavery, abandoned, or left out in the cold.
• In Nazi Germany, citizens with mental retardation and mental illness were the Gestapo’s first guinea pigs in medical experimentation and mass execution.
• Even in the United States, “feeblemindedness” and “mental deficiency” were used as labels as late as the 1950s and the people with intellectual disabilities were institutionalized, characterized by warehousing, enforced labor and mass sterilization.
• As part of the “eugenics” movement that swept over the United States between 1907 and 1944, more than 42,000 people were sterilized in the U.S., over half of them in California, in an attempt to eliminate the presumed genetic sources of diseases including “feeblemindedness.”
In contrast to this list of horrors, consider Danny’s last week of activities, as we got ready to celebrate his 17th birthday on Thanksgiving:
—On Sunday, we went to the Friendship Circle Los Angeles Walk, forced to move inside with heavy rainfall. Once there, Danny was paired with sweet, energetic female high school volunteer and enjoyed guitar music with new and old friends.
—On Monday, Danny attended the Nes Gadol Confirmation class at Vista Del Mar where he participated in a conversation about thankfulness, danced to Hanukkah songs and then shared gluten-free chocolate cake with his classmates, most of whom he has known for years
—On Tuesday, he had his bi-weekly swim lesson at Beverlywood Swim School where he is now swimming without water wings
—On Wednesday, he had another birthday party at Fairfax High School, and proudly pointed to the “Happy Birthday Danny” signs on the walls, and smiled broadly as his dad and Uncle played the guitar.
I thank God we are living now. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.