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Although citizenship guarantees certain rights, access to them has been unequal.

medal disability history america

For example, some citizens have been sterilized, warehoused, euthanized, and imprisoned because their voices, brains, and bodies were not acceptable to their communities.

With the popularity of social Darwinism and the ideas of Herbert Spencer—the doctrine of “survival of the fittest”—in the late 19th century, acceptance of people with disabilities diminished. Respect for and aid to people with disabilities and the poor eroded. At the same time, many people believed that criminal and other behaviors or traits, such as addiction and homosexuality, were inherited. Eugenicists justified eliminating the “unfit” by citing the betterment of society. 

The idea of creating “better citizens” is called eugenics and became popular in the 1880s. Eugenic ideas were embraced by scientists, politicians, feminists, and many others, including Alexander Graham Bell, Woodrow Wilson, Victoria Woodhull, and Thomas Edison. In 1907, Indiana became the first state with a forced sterilization law, allowing doctors to castrate or sterilize people in institutions against their will. The Supreme Court’s 1927 Buck v. Bell decision upheld such laws. By the 1970s more than 60,000 individuals had been forcibly sterilized under thirty-three state laws.