e d g e - education for disability and gender equity


Disability in Media
Disability & Art
Charity Images
News Media
Disability Culture

In the United States, charity has had a major impact on public perceptions of people with disabilities since the 19th century. The rapid industrialization of the U.S. economy meant that people with physical impairments were often unemployed.

Under capitalism, business owners accumulated profit through the efforts of workers; and, since people with disabilities were viewed as less productive than others, employers usually passed them over. Therefore, disability often meant poverty. This fact could not really be blamed on the disabilities themselves; rather, it was because businesses and communities often failed to give opportunities to disabled people.

Helen Keller, a deaf-blind woman who campaigned for social justice (and whose life was later dramatized in a play and several movies called The Miracle Worker), emphasized this important distinction.

Helen Keller and unidentified man
Keller fingerspelling into hand of a friend.

"We have been accustomed to regard the unemployed deaf and blind as victims of their infirmities," Keller said.

"Facts show that it is not physical blindness but social blindness which cheats our hands of the right to toil."

In other words, in a more fair society, people with blindness and other disabilities would be employed. Yet few people understood this. Instead, they saw disabled people as completely unable to work. Therefore, most disabled people were denied jobs. Some were supported by their families, but others had no such support available. These individuals found themselves having to beg -- just like the beggars which had roamed European streets for centuries. (Remember Goya's drawing?)

Some people used media to aid their efforts to solicit money from strangers. Here is a very early example. Postcards like this one carried a quick, compelling message, urging the recipient to take pity on the disabled individual and make a donation.

Photo of man seated on homemade wheelchair/wagon
The postcard reads, "Being unable to walk due to an injured spine, the only income I have is what I receive from you, my dear friends. Your smallest contribution will be highly appreciated. Thank you. I trust you will not regret it.

Eventually, organizations took over the task of raising money on behalf of disabled people. Private charities adopted and refined the notions related to more traditional (street) begging. As mass media, such as magazines and television, grew into a major influence on citizens' beliefs and on their financial decisions charity organizations learned to create and convey powerful messages about disability. These messages deliberately played upon viewers' sympathies, in order to persuade them to contribute money.

Why do you think people would donate money to disability-related charities? Why would people send money to help blind or deaf groups? What about heart and stroke foundations?

(Next - Section 6: Telethons)

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