Made Invisible? Archaeology and Social Treatment of People with Physical Disabilities

While on the campaign trail, Donald Trump seemed to mock the appearance of a New York Times reporter during a press conference. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Melissa Blake, who states that she is “physically disabled,” responds to Trump’s “bullying” by writing of her fear “of living in a country that would shun people with disabilities as if they didn’t exist.” Blake concludes her article with her “mantra” of “I am a person. I matter […] I will never stop fighting for our rights and against bullies.” Yet is it not the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens from feeling discriminated against? What role should society play in equal protection?

The curled position of this skeleton from the Man Bac burial in Vietnam, relative to the surrounding straight graves, suggests a physical disability

Turning to the archaeological record can reveal how cultures and other societies treated their members who had physical disabilities. First, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the term “disability” legally refers to “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment.” Therefore, the term “disability” should always be evaluated within a cultural context. As William Southwell-Wright describes in his paper “What Can Archaeology Offer Disability Studies,” “decoupling the physical fact of impairment” from the “socially constructed nature of reactions to it in the form of disability” can help evaluate how different societies treat people with “disabilities.”

These skeletal remains reveal severe physical trauma, providing evidence that the man had a physical disability

One example of a skeleton showing signs of a physical disability was discovered at the Man Bac burial ground in Vietnam by Dr. Marc Oxenham of Australian National University in Canberra. Dr. Oxenham concluded that the curled skeleton was that of a young man who had been paralyzed from the waist down before adolescence, and therefore would have been dependent on care from his community for survival. Another example from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology describes the skeletal remains of a man from Gran Quivira Pueblo, New Mexico whose bones’ musculoskeletal stress markers suggest a need for “complete dependence upon others during the progression of a debilitating disease.” The journal goes on to state that “although compassion cannot always be determined from the skeletal record alone, the severity of his condition suggests that he was wholly dependent on at least one other member of the group over a long period of time.”

As one archaeologist working on the Man Bac site stated, “the provision and receipt of health care may […] reflect some of the most fundamental aspects of a culture.” Additionally, “not only does [the Man Bac man’s] care indicate tolerance and cooperation in his culture, but suggests that he himself had a sense of his own worth and a strong will to live.” Although “compassion cannot always be determined from the skeletal record alone,” modern America should similarly support and care for all of its society. No individual or group should be made to feel “as if they didn’t exist,” and all should be imbued with a strong sense of worth.






Further Reading

The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation, 2011. Fleischer and Zames

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Race in Professional Sports

As the runners take their places, each waving to the camera as her name is announced, two aspects of the professional athletes’ physical appearance become apparent: one, all the 400 meter runners are incredibly muscled and lithe, and two, there is one single runner with much lighter skin tone than the others. Why do the arenas of certain professional sports appear to be unbalanced? Are people with certain skin colors genetically predisposed to possess greater athletic prowess?

Women’s 400 meter final, London Olympic Games 2012

While some point to genetics, others highlight culture for explanation. In his book Taboo, journalist Jon Entine posits that genetic differences among groups of people, or “races,” predispose certain populations to be better athletes, with minimal cultural influence. However, as Ian Kerr of Western Michigan University rebuts, genetic differences among groups of people do not exclusively account for athleticism. In fact, “scientists cannot find any specific genetic markers that define the characteristics of athleticism (speed, height, strength) in one group or “race” more than any other.” Therefore, while some groups of people may seem to be better at certain sports, such as Kenyan athletes winning the majority of professional long distance running events in the past decade, their athleticism cannot be tied to their skin color. Such superficial classification cannot explain any biological differences that may be thought to account for increased athleticism, because there is no such scientific evidence.

Genomes such as the ones pictured do not reveal a predisposition for athleticism in any group or “race” more than another

Anthropologists and archaeologists have long proved that ancestry does not equate to inferiority or superiority of certain groups of people. According to archaeologist Charles Orser in his work Race and Practice in Archaeological Interpretation, “racialization is a process that seeks to define and compartmentalize the human community on the basis of outward characteristics,” and such a process inevitably leads to “the construction of social inequality.” Genetics do not and cannot validate notions of inferiority or superiority of groups of people. To do so, as civil rights lawyer Vinay Harpalani argues, one would have to prove that, in the case of skin tone in sports: “1) there is a systematic way to define Black and White populations; 2) consistent and plausible genetic differences between the populations can be demonstrated; 3) a link between those genetic differences and athletic performance can be clearly shown.” Harpalani’s three-step system is scientifically unprovable, thereby dismissing claims that certain populations are inherently superior to others.
Therefore, using principles of bioarchaeology, or the analysis of past human remains to understand their larger culture, the belief in the superiority or inferiority of certain populations is debunked. Differences among groups are due to environmental factors, or training, in the case of sports. While cultural pride at times seems to stem from physical differences, true cultural pride should rise from mostly social, cognitive, and traditional roots. Therefore, when next the runners take their marks, they should not focus on the color of their competitors’ skin, but instead on their skill.

Further Reading



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