Understanding Disability: Part 2 – The Eugenics Model


This is part 2 in a 6-part blog series aimed at helping you to understand Disability.

In the previous blog, I introduced the idea that how we understand Disability is ever-changing and that at different points in time there have been different models of Disability which have shaped both who is classified as Disabled and what language is deemed socially-acceptable.

In this blog, I am going to introduce you to the first model of Disability in the series: the Eugenics Model. I will attempt to explain how the concept of eugenics has shaped the way we understand Disability.

Eugenics Model


Summary: Undesirable physical and social characteristics should be bred out of the human race

Eugenics model language: normal people, abnormal people, fit, unfit, undeserving, inferior

The Eugenics Model is the framework that came to characterise disability as we understand it today in the modern, Western world.

The base logic of the theory of eugenics is that people are either fit or unfit.

To be unfit is to be genetically inferior.

The theory posits that efforts should be made to decrease all elements of genetic inferiority from the human race until they no longer exist.

This categorisation laid the foundations for how we understand people to be disabled or non-disabled today. But first, some context.

A history of eugenics

At its worst, eugenics was used to justify the killing of millions of people through the Nazi Holocaust. However, from the late 19th Century to the end of World War 2, it also underpinned policy and politics in most of the Western world.

This included practices such as forced sterilisation, institutionalisation, human testing, and withholding of medical care in countries including the US, UK, Australia and Sweden.

So normalised was this thinking in the Western world that when Germany underwent a process of paying compensation for the Holocaust overseen by Allied powers, the payouts to those who had been forcibly sterilised was both disputed and limited as it was felt that these forced sterilisations had been done by the Nazis with due cause.

The theory of eugenics was invented by the British. Charles Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton developed the theory. Where Darwin discussed evolution and ideas we now shorthand to “the survival of the fittest” in the natural world, Galton developed these ideas into a kind of “social Darwinism” and applied them to humans and the social world.

Galton’s ideas were wildly popular on both sides of the Atlantic and received enthusiastic support from politicians, scientists and notable cultural figures.

Its popularity is believed to be in part due to its development alongside growing inequality in the newly industrialised, capitalist world.

It was a theory that allowed elites to justify their wealth, both morally and scientifically, while witnessing the expansion of poverty, inequality and their social impacts.

People are “fit” or “unfit”

The base logic of the theory of eugenics is that people can be categorized as either fit or unfit. To be unfit is to be genetically inferior.

Genetic inferiority was defined by people with undesirable traits that could be genetically reproduced.

This categorisation laid the foundations for how we understand people to be disabled or non-disabled today.

The types of people who were included in this categorisation – and traits that were believed to be genetic – did not just include people we consider as disabled today, but also included women, people of colour, LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) people, criminals and the working class.

Practices were developed to curtail the expansion of these groups and/or their inferior characteristics within Western societies including immigration policies, electroconvulsive therapy and forced sterilisation.

So eugenics is not only relevant to understanding the history and construction of disabled people, but also the modern incarnations of many systems of oppression including racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and criminalisation to name a few.

The popularity of eugenics began to decline as knowledge of the horrors of the Nazi regime spread following World War 2.

People were repulsed by the attempt to exterminate whole social groups of people – notably Jewish people – but also disabled people, LGBTQ people, people of colour and Roma/Gypsies.

Modern understanding of disability

At some point thereafter the conception of unfit shifted to mean people with perceived physical defects. This has shaped the way we categorise people as disabled, versus non-disabled, today.

While the eugenics model is no longer in practice as the wholesale way we understand disability, it’s important to note that it still influences and shapes public discourse and policy in a number of ways:

There are also ways that eugenics still functions or underpins systems in society that are seen as positive: in the NHS, the benefit system, birth control, artificial insemination, and so on.

It also lays at the heart of why so many disability rights campaigners are in opposition to the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide – there is even a musical on the topic.

Normal and abnormal

The legacy of the eugenics model in understanding the language and theory of disability is that it created the construct of fit/unfit, which paved the way for the thinking of people as normal or abnormal.

This construction of normal is important as it functions as a bar of how people are seen as fully functioning humans. Anyone who doesn’t meet the ideal type of “normal” is seen as less than fully human.

More specifically it constructed the idea that disability is the problem of the individual and of their unfit body or anatomy, which in turn paved the way for the Medical Model of disability.

Read the next blog for more on the Medical Model of Disability.

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