From reading of 19th century literature and history -- for example, I read that it was believed by people in the time of the "Elephant Man" that deformities were caused by bad deeds of parents (but also similar quality thinking that his mom had been scared by an elephant); anyway, people saw nothing wrong in handicapped people being exhibited and the movie Freaks made in the 1930s used performers from side shows which even in the 1960s existed in the USA although I think they were on their way out by then.

I have also had conversations with people born in the late 19th or early 20th century and based on these, it is my sense that it was a tougher time in general.

I wonder, assuming it is agreed that there has been a significant shift, what caused it and when? Could better health in general have reduced the number of people with handicaps so there was less "handicap fatigue?" Could Roosevelt's handicap have reduced the stigma? Was it a general increase in education level?

  • Roosevelt's public appearances were carefully choreographed to minimize evidence of his handicap, so we can rule that theory out.
    – Mark
    Sep 18, 2020 at 2:33
  • no, he tried to avoid being seen in a wheelchair, etc. but people certainly knew that he had polio.
    – releseabe
    Sep 18, 2020 at 2:34
  • 4
    The American Civil War created a huge number of handicapped people, and wounded soldiers were generally seen in a positive light. Sep 18, 2020 at 2:47
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    Are sure you mean compassion, which is a very christian thing and different from respect or equal (positive) rights?
    – mart
    Sep 18, 2020 at 10:32
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    and of course the question: what has your own research shown so far. I'm pretty sure the history of legal rights around disability is well documented and there may be something within the field of disability studies more aligned with your question
    – mart
    Sep 18, 2020 at 10:47

1 Answer 1


A key moment was the passage of the Americans With Disabiities Act of 1990.

This followed a trend of "compassion" that was the hallmark of the so-called Silent Generation, born 1925-1942 (according to Strauss and Howe. This generation produced noted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King (1929) and Senators Bobby (1925) and Ted Kennedy (1932). It was a prosperous generation that was taught to "share" as children, and looked around to see "minorities" not sharing in the general prosperity.More than some other generations, they did their best to rectify these inequalities. Put another way, they gave more because they had more to give.

Among other things, they had been taught to discriminate against other groups as children, but were much more careful (as a group) about passing on these prejudices to their own children, which is why these prejudices started to "die out."

  • This is mere opinion. What evidence do you have, beyond your own birth date and limited memory before that, that such compassion didn't exist before 1960? Sep 19, 2020 at 15:05
  • @PieterGeerkens: I never claimed "that such compassion didn't exist before 1960." That is, I did not claim exclusivity for the late 20th century, only that it was "a" moment. If I were claiming it is "the" moment, it might be opinion, but the title of the American With Disabilities Act, together with the reference to Strauss and Howe's work, makes a claim of a "tipping point" factual. Put another way, I'm not claiming the "uniqueness," only the "existence" of a moment, a weaker condition.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 20, 2020 at 7:40
  • If you're interested, Strauss and Howe's Generations: the history of America's future, 1584 to 2069 is also available to borrow on archive.org. Sep 20, 2020 at 7:50
  • @sempaiscuba: I've read "Generations" many times. I used to be on Strauss and Howe's private forum of 30 people before Bill Strauss passed away.
    – Tom Au
    Sep 20, 2020 at 15:40
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    @TomAu I suspect that your familiarity with Strauss does not serve you well here. You take for granted a number of ideas that I do not find at all to be obviously true. e.g. Was the "Silent Generation" truly the first to be taught to share as children? That's the sort of claim that requires some explanation - I would intuit that sharing would be more valued in agrarian societies with large families, not in industrializing populations with increasing mobility and specialization. After all, this generation saw the greatest expansion of income inequality in centuries.
    – pokep
    Sep 20, 2020 at 17:15

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