“Useless Eaters” and “Unclean”: Are We as Far Removed as We Think?

Hello, readers,

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November” is most closely associated with Guy Fawkes Night. But today, I would like for my readers to associate the fifth of November with a new awakening to the urgency of disability rights and the fact that people with disabilities all around us are crying out, even if silently, for our help. Because if we don’t start listening, soon, it may be too late to listen.

You may recognize the words and phrases in this post’s title. One, “useless eaters,” is the phrase Hitler and his Nazi regime used to refer to people with all kinds of disabilities–those who were deemed “genetically unfit” to be part of Hitler’s perfect Germany and “master race.” These people were called “useless eaters” because in the minds of those in power, they had no physical or mental capabilities other than to eat–to take handouts of food from the working, “useful” population. The mental picture this paints for me is disgusting–it makes me think of a grossly overweight, grasping, drooling, entity with no human characteristics whatsoever–just a mouth gobbling what others give and then demanding more. The picture that the word “unclean”–a word also used to describe PWDs in the past–is even less pleasant. It makes me think of dirtiness, of lesser value, and of unworthiness to be in society. And yet, this is what twenty-first century America continues to say PWDs are. Let that sink in, folks: twenty-first century America.

I can anticipate, and understand, that some of you folks might think this is extreme. After all, you might say, America has not set up a euthanasia program like the one in Hitler’s Germany. We don’t stick PWDs in gas chambers and then bury them in pits or unmarked graves. Okay, maybe we don’t–yet. (Whether we will in the future, with the way this country is going in terms of healthcare, is another ballgame, one which I refuse to let myself visit for fear of my own sanity). We don’t do those things because we think we are “civilized.” However, take a look at this evidence to the contrary, provided through disabilityscoop.com and the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, respectively:

  • Between 1866 and 1997–that’s 1997, folks, as in just 16 years ago–13,000 people died in Minnesota’s 11 state mental hospitals. Many, many of these people were not mentally ill at all, but had developmental and other disabilities. When they died, they were buried in graves marked, not with a name, but a number. For example, when a young man named Eugene, who had developmental disabilities, died there, his name was not acknowledged. He was buried under a grave marker inscribed simply: 551. The occupation listing on his death certificate read “inmate.” Thanks to the organization Remembering with Dignity, his grave now bears his name. But the fact that people were laid to rest, if one could call it that, with such indignity, as recently as 16 years ago, should make us all squirm.
  • According to the website of the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Memorial, before 1941 and the advent of Hitler’s Germany and the T4 Program (an “open secret,” according to the website, put in place to rid the country of the physically and mentally unfit through a so-called “good death”), the United States led the world–the world–in forced sterilizations of persons with disabilities.
  • Forced sterilization of persons with disabilities continues today, and many “hospitals, asylums, and other places where [it is] performed” choose not to document their history, according to a project done on Nazi euthanasia crimes and sterilization at the University of Vermont. Is this happening in some Third World country? No–it’s happening here, in the U.S. Land of the free–unless you’ve got a disability, that is. Then, tough luck, but we’ll sterilize you for free!

But even if a person with a disability never has to endure the horrors of modern eugenics–and I hope to God one day no one will, disability or not–I contend that much of our society still sees, and treats, its persons with disabilities as “useless eaters”–as in, all they can really do with themselves, is eat. Of course, now we hide it all behind a veil of political correctness and tolerance, but the attitude still remains. Don’t believe me? Okay, then let’s take a look at the evidence. A lot of that evidence rests on one word: accessibility, or lack thereof.

  • Schools, particularly those of the public variety, still often turn up their noses at the idea of having students with disabilities be educated inside them, even in segregated classrooms. For example, one American mother was offered $86,000 if she would keep her son, who has severe autism, from attending school. A Texas student who uses a walker was ordered not to use it at school because other students might get hurt, and ordered to use her wheelchair, which makes her more dependent, not more independent, in a society that values the independence of the individual. Students with disabilities are often subjected to sub-par curriculums and career options, or “transition services” that have been described as “too little, too late,” so that when they do leave school, they may have little choice but to sit around their houses. As Kathie Snow so eloquently puts it, too often, our education system fails these students in that high school becomes “the beginning of the end.”
  • In many states, adults with disabilities do not live as part of the community. Traditional institutions with 100 beds or more are still in operation, and while classical abuse may not take place, the people who live there remain shut out from society through no fault of their own.
  • Businesses, both of the work and leisure variety, often refuse to make themselves disability accessible because it is allegedly not cost-effective to do so. (Think about non-accessible seating, narrow aisles and doors, lack of ramps, and so forth, to name just a few problems). That’s assuming PWDs have transportation to even reach these businesses; if they do, it’s often unreliable, or the person faces rude treatment from those in “control” of the transportation service. Or somebody says, “Okay, I’ll drive you if you pay for gas”–but where’s the money going to come from? (See previous post).
  • See previous post for more on this issue: Because of a need for chronic pain meds, many people with disabilities are forced to stay home. Therefore, not only can they not gain leisure time, they can’t work and earn a living.

So, we see these things, and what happens? Well, best-case scenario, most people would see these facts and want to do something to change them (more on that in a moment). But too many people look at these facts and say, “I wish those people would stop whining! Why don’t those people get jobs? They just want government handouts. I shouldn’t have to waste my tax money…”

Do you hear what’s going on? People with disabilities are being derided and shamed for something they can’t control. They’re being seen, not in so many words, as useless eaters–because that’s what we decided it’s best that they remain. If they remain in the box where they were placed, we don’t have to do any extra work. Gee, I wonder if that’s kind of how it started in Hitler’s Germany: people saw their neighbors with disabilities, figured they would never fit into the “master race,” and because they were blinded enough to buy into the idea that a “master race” exists, acted accordingly?

“Unclean” is a similar way in which society too often views PWDs. If you recognize this as a Biblical word, you should. I got the idea for this post, in part, after reading the story of Jesus healing ten lepers in Luke 19:11-17. I was completing some homework for Beth Moore’s Bible study Jesus the One and Only, where she poignantly describes the life of a leper. These people suffered from a skin disease that was not your average acne or rosacea. This disease was degenerative and led to smelly, decaying flesh, disfigurement, even the loss of limbs or facial features. Lepers were expected to stay outside of their normal society–were not even allowed to approach God in worship–and were forced to go about with unkempt hair and torn clothing, shouting “Unclean!” to warn away those who would come near them. Force yourself to picture this. We are talking about unkempt, most likely filthy, people with parts literally missing, forced to shout knowledge of their affliction wherever they went.

So it is no wonder that when these ten lepers encountered Jesus, they cried out “with a loud voice, ‘Jesus! Master! Have pity on us!'”

Beth Moore makes a distinction about the word “pity” that I think applies very well to the situation of many with disabilities. She doesn’t give the original translation in her lesson, but does point out that the original meaning of “pity” in the Bible story is, “to have compassion…to want to do something to lift the miseries.”

Did you catch that? These lepers were not saying to Jesus, “Pity us!” They were essentially saying, “DO SOMETHING about our situation, because we know you can!” And that reminded me…

The worst of society looks at people with disabilities as going around with their hands out, screaming their “afflictions”, even if silently: “Cerebral palsy! Autism! Down’s Syndrome! Help, help, help!” Over and over, until the air reverberates with it. But here’s an idea:

What if these people are crying out, not for pity, but for action? What if we stopped pitying them and made our society, and ourselves, authentically accessible? Suppose, instead of seeing that person as a “useless eater,” we learned to say, “Come and break bread with me?”

I fear for what will happen if we don’t. If we don’t, we might all starve.

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