Humans, nearly universally, live in societies. We get together and live cooperatively and interdependently. Humans are profoundly social animals; it’s our primary survival strategy. There are a number of benefits this confers such as skill specialization, resource sharing, and cooperative breeding, but I really want to focus on the disabled aspect of this. What is society for in terms of disabled people?
I think that people have two wildly differing ideas regarding what society is for, and that is where a lot of conflict comes in around how to care for disabled people (or, and this is terrible even to say, whether to care for disabled people at all). Personally, I call these ideas the goose model and the wolf model.
So ages and ages ago, I lived on a sheep farm for around a year. That sheep farm happened to have a flock of geese that lived there too. Those geese had pretty easy lives. Food and water was plentiful, shelter was close at hand, and the dogs made sure that they didn’t really have to contend with predators. Nonetheless, geese will always be geese. Geese are also social animals, preferring to hang out together in a flock (with the exception of breeding season, but anyway). However, they do not in any way take care of each other while they are in this flock. I got to witness one goose get sick (not terribly sick. Like a goose cold or something) and the rest of the flock turned out that goose absolutely viciously. They drove it out, wouldn’t let it get close, and closed ranks against it. That poor goose tried incredibly hard to be as close to the flock as they would let it get, and otherwise just tried to spend it’s time hiding since it was alone and didn’t have the safety of its flock.
To the geese, the group is about protection from predators and a hostile world. Even if the world they live in isn’t actually hostile, that’s still what the group is for. A weak member of the group drags everyone down, and thus is undesirable. This is what I call the “goose model.” This idea of society is fear-based, constantly worried about attack from outside threats, and considers it best to get rid of anything that might be seen as “weakness.”
(Disclaimer: I don’t know if all geese act like that or just the breed that I was around, which I believe was a particularly vicious kind of goose. Regardless, it’s still where I got my metaphor for this part of my model)
Then there’s the wolf model. Wolves also live in groups, but their treatment of the sick or injured or weak is wildly different from what I saw in those geese. Wolves actually care for their weaker pack members. The weak, the injured, the sick, the elderly, the disabled – the rest of the pack takes care of them. I’ve seen this behavior in cats as well. Cats are not as aggressively social as wolves or humans are, but they still can form bonds with each other and I’m sure we’ve all seen stories about a cat taking care of an injured friend or refusing to leave an injured cat’s side.
In this model, a society is for taking care of each other. The strength of the group comes from the assurance that the members will always take care of each other. There is no need to judge anyone’s individual contribution – we’re a family, and family takes care of family.
It probably goes without saying that I am in the wolf model camp. Humans are cooperative and interdependent, and I strongly believe that our strength comes from taking care of each other. It’s about the entire group lifting each other up, and everyone being better off because of it. It’s about recognizing that everyone deserves to live and thrive regardless of what they may struggle with.
As far as I can tell, human societies have been all over the board in regards to how they treated the sick or disabled. Since I’m not actually trying to write a term paper here, I chose to not dive into that mire. I did, however, find some interesting articles about prehistoric societies. Apparently there is a growing body of evidence that prehistoric societies also took care of their sick, injured, etc. Here is an article going over a few cases of archaeological finds showing disabled individuals thousands of years ago, living far longer than they would have been able to on their own. They absolutely had to have been taken care of – meaning the people around them did exactly that. It seems that at least some ancient humans viewed the role of society as being for taking care of each other.
Personally, I think that’s pretty cool.