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Euthanasia, eugenics and institutionalisation

Disability Perspectives

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Paul K Longmore
Paul K Longmore
A Disabled Professor of History at San Francisco State University
My favorite disability film is Coming Home because it centres on a disabled man who, as a complete and mature person, knows who he is, serves as a moral and emotional home base for many people around him, and contributes to his society as a moral and political preceptor.

Euthanasia, eugenics and institutionalisation

Disability lies at the heart  of one of the most important moral debates that society is being forced to address as it centers the twenty-first century: euthanasia and genetics. it is also central to other hotly debated contemporary issues such as abortion and the state of contemporary health care. numerous films and documentaries have confronted such sub je cts, including Ich klage an (1941), A Day in the Death ofJoe Egg (1973), The Pannwitz Perspective (1991 ), Soylent Green (1973), Logan's Run (1976) and Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981).

Many other films have had a damaging effect on  debates about euthanasia and  eugenics  by simply  portraying disabled people as abnormal, as not wanting to live as disabled people, or as burdensome. Overtime, moving images of disability have profoundly affected not only how disabled people are seen but also how they are individually and collectively treated and 'dealt with' by society One need only think of the continuing use of 'pathetic' images of disabled people by large charities seeking to raise funds on the backs of the 'tragically disabled'. Since the invention of the moving image, the preponderance of imagery of the disabled as objects of charity for te great and the good has meant that disabled people are still seen as second-class subjects. Consequently, it is no surprise that pro-euthanasia and pro-eugenics material should dominate filmic interventions in the debates about such issues. Such interventions do not arise in a vacuum; they are only produced as a result of previous imagery or attitudes.

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Reich's  propaganda  chief - who promoted euthanasia despite his own  polio impairment - once said  that you  could  not  force people to suddenly start thinking in a new way; the state could only encourage them in the views they had already been acculturated into holding - usually through their formal state education. One can say only that it is about time disabled people started to have the primary voice in debates that directly affect not only their lives but their continuing existence .

 

Institutionalisation, and the effects of charity, have had a negative impact on the self-image of the disabled and have helped to create a society oblivious to the needs and desires of the disabled. The second-class life of those living in institutions is often portrayed as  being  suitable for the disabled or elderly. Instead , the issue that should be explored is whether  society  is  simply  warehousing those whom it seeks to exclude from 'normal' society.

Rarely, if ever, does discussion turn to the nature of institutionalisation itself - effectively imprisonment for the crime of being different.