Isolation has historically been an effective means of passive eugenics, primarily through the institutionalization and segregation of people with a broad range of disabilities. This occurred primarily to people with intellectual disabilities or mental health diagnoses, but it also happened to children living in residential schools for blind, deaf and physically disabled children in the middle decades of the 20th century [1, 2].
Today, residential schools for deafness, blindness and physical disabilities are rare, and people with intellectual disabilities and mental health labels are no longer automatically relegated to institutions. Although living spaces for people with disabilities have changed, we can still identify many passive newgenic practices in current housing for people with disabilities. Whether in larger residential ‘care’ centres, in small group homes, or even in community-based supported living situations, disabled people can face a lack of privacy, isolation, and unreasonable social control.
People with severe physical or mental disabilities who live in long-term care facilities to access medical services that are unavailable in their homes may have no opportunity to leave their facilities or socialize with people outside, which limits their chances for developing close and meaningful relationships. Often these people only are able to leave their ‘homes’ under supervised or group outings because of caregiver convenience or because of protectionism. This can limit their ability to make connections and relationships.
Similarly, in group homes – a common ‘option’ for people with intellectual disabilities – ordinary practices that most people take for granted, such as locking the door to one’s room, are denied. People who live in group homes meant to facilitate ‘independent living’ are not allowed to stay out overnight or have an overnight visitor, and they may not have permission to lock their doors so that even masturbating is something that is controlled by staff .
In our research, people who live in group homes have described being prevented from activities that would be considered perfectly normal for any other young person or adult – having a friend in their room, sleeping with someone, being affectionate with someone they care for in public, watching pornography, or masturbating are instead treated as bad ‘behaviours’ that staff seek to prevent or extinguish. This may be because workers and family members assume that intellectually disabled people are ‘childlike’ and ‘asexual’ so that any sexual interest is discouraged as ‘inappropriate’ .
Even in supported living situations, we have heard of people whose ‘supporters’ are very controlling of their sexuality. For example, one young man described being locked out of the house in which he rented a room because his landlord, recommended through a faith-based service agency, did not agree with the young man’s use of pornography. The message was that his interest was wrong, and there was no effort made to find more rewarding avenues for him to explore his sexuality. Rather, the service agency sided with the landlord, and the young man was effectively made homeless for a short while.
Another passive way that isolation constrains disabled people’s relationships and intimacy, is through the isolation that comes with underemployment. As well, many people with intellectual disabilities, severe physical disabilities or mental health challenges participate in ‘day programs’ that on the surface provide vocational training or supported work through things like bottle exchanges or handicraft shops. But these forms of workfare are often housed within or alongside other disability service agencies, so that people arrive at these programs by specialized buses, spend their days with other disabled people being watched and cajoled by paid workers, and then are bused home to their group home or supported living setting.
There is little opportunity in this kind of life for independent action, for slipping away for a quiet lunch with a potential romantic partner, for calling someone up in the evening to ask them for a date, for exploring relationships and having one’s heart bruised, or for any other kinds of relationship-building that may lead to sexual exchanges. In this way, current disability ‘services’ can form their own tacit, and invisible, network of passive eugenics through isolation.
- Braddock, D.L. and S.L. Parish, An Institutional History of Disability, in Handbook of Disability Studies, K.D. Seelman and M. Bury, Editors. 2001, Sage: London. p. 11-55.
- Taylor, S.J., The Institutions Are Dying, But Are Not Dead Yet, in Deinstitutionalization and People with Intellectual Disabilities, K. Johnson and R. Traustadottir, Editor. 2005, Jessica Kingsley Publishers: Philadephia p. 93-107.
- Hollomotz, A. and The Speakup Committee, ‘May we please have sex tonight?’ People with learning difficulties pursuing privacy in residential group settings. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 2009. 37(2): p. 91-97.
- Milligan, M.S. and A.H. Neufeldt, The Myth of Asexuality: A Survey of Social and Empirical Evidence. Sexuality and Disability, 2001. 19(2): p. 91-109.