The representation of people with disabilities and mental illnesses has changed immensely over the centuries. Despite these changes, past religious, government and scientific views and representations still influence views and perceptions today.

Historically, people with physical disabilities and people who live with a mental illness have been labelled and categorized with terms that today would be considered insulting, derogatory and stigmatizing. We included this historical section to address the fact that even before mass media existed, societies were labelling and mis-representing people with disabilities and mental illnesses and that the labelling and misrepresenting was detrimental (even lethal) for people living with physical or mental challenges.

Ancient Greece: Physical Disabilities and Mental Illness

Babies born with a disability were often abandoned or killed since it was believed that they would not live a comfortable life. According to Plutarch, an essayist circa 46CE to 120 CE, infanticide was a common practice in Greece with children that could possibly have a disability or a visible marking that stands out to observers, since it was seen as a mark of divine disfavor (Mentor, 2019).

In addition to that, Plutarch argued that Greeks with a physical disability or other serious illness should not participate in social affairs or politics. People with disabilities were stigmatized, neglected by and excluded from society, and subject to physical violence, in addition to being neglected and mocked by Greek writers and comedians, such as Aristophanes (Mentor, 2019).

People with disabilities could find work in ancient Greece. They worked as tailors, metalworkers, miners, and slaves. A lot of these jobs required mobility so they used donkeys and crutches when necessary.

In Greek mythology, Hephaestus is the God of fire and metalwork. His story began when Hera, his mother, decided to marry him off to Aphrodite, the most beautiful goddess of them all, but when he arrived, they saw that he had misshapen feet and looked like an old man. So, with all her strength, Hera threw him away to the island of Lemnos and when he landed, he created a hole that almost reached the center of the earth and created the first volcano. The Nereids raised him and called him Hephaestus. He became the best sculptor, metal worker, and blacksmith but he continued to be mocked for the way that he walked as a result of his disability. (bradkronen, 2017).

Plato, a Greek philosopher, defined two types of mental illnesses. The first was madness created by illnesses, and the second was madness because of other causes, like a troubled character. The madness because of a troublesome character was not seen as a disorder, but as more as a personality flaw and the fault of the person with the mental illness.

Both forms of madness were treated differently; the madness that was viewed as a result of a ‘troublesome character’ was treated with penalties depending on the severity of the crime; the penalties were designed to save the soul. People who were viewed as having the form of madness as a result of illness were excluded from these penalties because their souls were not seen as salvageable. People with these forms of madness were kept inside and controlled and cared for by family members. If a person who was labelled with this kind of madness committed a crime, the family was held accountable and had to pay a fine for failing to perform their duty. Even though mental illnesses were recognized in Greek society, they were not provided with support and they were excluded from public life (Ahonen, 2018).

Some Different Ideas in Ancient Rome

If a person who worked as a slave became injured, which was quite common, the upper classes of Roman society sought out them out as they were seen almost as a good luck charm. (Brignell et al., 2008). The more visible the disability was, the higher the demand was for certain work and entertainment, such as musicians, dancers, and even for sexual exploitation.

Caelius Aurelianus, a Roman physician, described three forms of madness:

  1. Phrenitis: a form of delirium or hallucination caused by fever. (Pike, 2017).
  2. Mania: an excitement manifested by mental and physical hyperactivity, disorganization of behavior, and elevation of mood according to Meriam-Webster (Meriam-Webster, n.d.). In Roman times it was defined as chaotic thoughts, frenzy, anger, and delirium, without the fever.
  3. Melancholia: a depression of spirits, along with symptoms of sadness and fear.

The cures for these illnesses included:

  • bloodletting
  • medicine to cause vomiting
  • encouragement of self-induced vomiting.

Sweating, diarrhea and and/or vomiting were all signs that the treatment was ‘helping’. More extreme forms of cures included chains and whipping.  All these cures were based on the idea that you could banish the bad spirits inside a person through sweating, blood-letting, vomiting or by inducing pain.

The Middle Ages (700 to 1400)

In historic England, due to the Catholic influence, many people believed disabilities came from a sin at birth, a bad influence (the planet Saturn), or, conversely, that the disability a gift from god. This belief was based on the assumption that people with disabilities were suffering on earth so that they would go to Heaven sooner. Whether people with disabilities were seen as sinners or as gifts from god, they were still seen as different and never as respected members of society.

Since the state could not support people with disabilities, the Catholic church often cared for them, the church’s teaching decided on how they were cared for. This was a step away from encouraging parents to abandon their children, no matter how the cause of the disability was interpreted.

In 757 A.D., an archbishop of Milan founded the first asylum for abandoned babies. After leprosy started disappearing (1100-1300), more institutions and hospitals became available and were filled with orphans, migrants, madmen, incurables, prostitutes, widows, and criminals. These types of institutions, built by religious groups, laid the groundwork for the idea that it was society’s responsibility to care for the sick, injured and ‘disabled’.

Not everyone in society agreed with this idea, however, and in the middle ages, ‘idiot cages’ were of common use and were placed in the center of towns. The purpose of these cages was to keep the people with disabilities from causing problems and to provide the townsfolk with a source of entertainment.

Another way of making sure that people with disabilities didn’t harm or trouble anyone was to put them on a ‘ship of fools’ and send them from harbor to harbor, charging visitors and onlookers a fee . At the end of the trip, the crew would leave them at a harbor where they had to fend for themselves in an unknown location (Historic England, n.d.).

In the middle ages, many people believed that people with mental illnesses were possessed by demons and/or by witchcraft., The Catholic church used exorcisms, shrines, and saints to ‘heal’ people with mental illnesses; some ‘healers’ even went so far as to drill a hole in people’s skulls to ‘free the evil’ spirits inside.

In Europe there were multiple shrines believed to relieve madness; some were known to be better than others. For example, the shrine in Belgium at Gheel dedicated to St. Dymphna, which later became a hospice for people with mental illnesses. When the hospice was full, villagers would take them in. This is still the case today.

In some villages in Germany, the mentally ill were often whipped and forced out of town or sent to other villages. Other villages had ‘madman’ towers where they would lock people up. In Paris, hotels had special rooms reserved for people with mental illnesses.

At the beginning of the middle ages, many looked after family members with mental illnesses. In the later stages, many were placed in asylums (Department of administration, n.d.). In 1247 in London the Saint Mary of Bethlehem was founded to house the ‘deprived of reason’. Today this is the Bethlem Royal Hospital, but for years it was the inspiration for horror movies and books because of the known horrific conditions. The patients were chained and lived in misery (Kelly, 2020). The origins of the term, bedlam,

In 1400 the Catholic church needed a scapegoat for the plague, among other things. This led to over 300 years of witch-hunting in Germany and other countries and over 50,000 victims of torture and killing. Many people believed that witches were marked by the devil, because of that link and connection, a person with a mark on the body was believed to be a witch. This belief stigmatized people with physical disabilities even more.

The Renaissance (1400s – 1600)

In the Renaissance, a bigger influence from science, due to people like Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci, lead to towards a more medical and health-based perspective and representation of people with disabilities.

The religious explanations for disabilities, however, remained the same as in the middle ages. In addition to that, many Catholics believed that since every child was a gift of God, caring for children with disabilities would earn them favor in God’s eye. Some researchers and art historians believe that the Virgin Mary was often depicted either holding or surrounded by a baby or child with a disability for this reason. (Dobson, 2003).

The witch hunt as previously mentioned in the Middle ages continued well into the Renaissance. Mothers that gave birth to a child with mental or physical disabilities could be branded as witches based on the belief that a fairy or demon switched out the infant at birth. In addition, people born with visible physical disabilities were often used as jesters or fools in courts.

The use of labels and terms to describe and classify mental illnesses became more predominant during the Renaissance. Over time asylums and care hospitals became more common and institutions and doctors tried to differentiate between curable and incurable ‘madness’. Well past the 18th-century, however, visitors were welcomed to asylums and they paid to view mentally ill patients who were often chained on like animals.

Colonial America (1700 – 1800s)

In Colonial America, many towns created poor farms and almshouses for people with physical disabilities and mental illnesses. A lot of the facilities were overcrowded and in bad condition. Due to the rapid industrialization and changes in the country, the government increasingly took over the responsibility of caring for people with disabilities so that family members could work and look after their other children. In the 1840s asylums started to take a more ethical approach to treating people with disabilities, and there was less use of restraints (chains, straitjackets, etc) and more use of therapies that focused on patients’ well-being. To make this possible most of these hospitals were re-located to more rural areas with big gardens, multiple wings, and farmland. Religious groups supported this form of treatment as well.

This form of ‘treatment’ mostly ended in the early 1900s, as the economy took a downtown and governments were not willing to spend money on people with disabilities. This is when medical inventions such as electroshock became more common. Electric shock therapy sent small electric shocks through the brain to ‘treat’ mental disorders. In addition, hospitals and medical practitioners sterilized people with disabilities in hopes that their children would not inherit the ‘disability’ through genetics and, in the mistaken belief that people with physical and mental challenges were not fit to raise children. Another belief was that cutting certain connections in the brain through lobotomies would cure manias or other behavioral issues. After thousands of lobotomies, doctors realized this treatment will not help the patients and switched to medication and other methods (Meldon, 2017).

Physical Disabilities After World War 1 (1914 – 1918):

After the first world war wounded soldiers came back from the war and many countries had to deal with millions of injured soldiers and civilians. In Britain, the discussion of how to care for these people was a big topic. Since most of the soldiers were still young, the main goal became helping them to rejoin society and to live comfortable lives. One of the biggest issues for people with missing limbs was finding a job.

To help the people with missing limbs or visible facial injuries, aluminum prosthetics and masks were manufactured to look like ‘real’ limbs and faces.  However, these masks often did not blend into the face and may stigmatized people even more. If the facial injuries were fixable with plastic surgery, it would be done. (Heritage Calling, 2018).

After the second world, many soldiers came back with physical and emotional war wounds.  PTSD, then called shell shock, had a huge impact on the veterans’ mental health. Soldiers with shell shock or other mental issues caused by the trauma of war were seen by many in the British community as exhibiting emotional weakness or as cowards. Many medical professionals, however, specialized in helping these soldiers to recover, unfortunately, at first with treatments like shock therapy and/or solitary confinement. One army major believed that a treatment of farm work, intense rigorous therapy, and hypnosis would be more helpful and apparently, he cured about 90 percent of the patients, according to Historic England (Heritage Calling, 2018).

Physical Disabilities and Mental Illnesses after World War 2:

During World War 2, the Nazi regime intended to create a ‘master race’. Thus, people with disabilities were in the way of that goal. The so-called handicapped and unfit were seen as useless and unworthy of life by the Nazis. At the beginning of the second world war in 1939, the practice of euthanasia was introduced and the murdering of people with mental and physical disabilities began. With the help of doctors, patients from institutions that were deemed as disabled were chosen and put into institutions led by the NSDAP. These doctors also supervised these killings. Children and infants were also killed by lethal injections or starvation. The Nazi regime killed over 200,000 people with disabilities between 1939 and 1945.  Experiments on people with disabilities after their death or even when they were alive were conducted to exploit them for profit for new medication and scientific interest. (Forgotten Crimes: The Holocaust and people with disabilities, 2001).




REFLECT: Discuss or write your answers to the following questions.

  1. In what ways do you think these historic views might still influence the present?
  2. What can we learn from past misrepresentations to create a more just and equitable society?
  3. What is important for you when talking, writing about or representing disability and mental illnesses?



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