Last year, my Blogging Against Disablism Day post was about disablism in the American suffrage movement, and the consistent invisibility of disabled women in a current US women's history text. This year, I want to consider another big story in North American history--the great waves of immigration from Europe in the late 19th/early 20th century. Where's the disablism? In sum, exclusionary laws required officials to identify people with various disabilities at various points of arrival, and forbid them entry into the US and Canada, under the assumptions that (a) they would be a drain on the public purse, and/or (b) they would weaken the "national stock" with their faulty constitutions. At Ellis Island today, you can see photographs and artifacts of this inspection process. Note that, discrimination against disabled people wasn't a benign oversight, nor an unforeseen consequence of broader policy--disability discrimination was the policy. As Douglas Baynton has explained,
"One of the fundamental imperatives in the initial formation of American immigration policy at the end of the 19th century was the exclusion of disabled people. Beyond the targeting of disabled people, the concept of disability was instrumental in crafting the image of the undesirable immigrant." (Baynton 2001: 45)(This statement is made in regards to US immigration history, but would apply to the Canadian case as well.)
But what if you passed through the inspection without being detected? One of the most haunting stories in the history of disability and immigration policy is the tale of George Everitt Green (1880-1895), an English teenager who was transplanted to Canada as part of the "Barnardo scheme" to settle orphaned and destitute boys with Canadian and Australian foster families. (There were parallel schemes for girls.) He was born in London, and left to the care of the local parish at the age of 6. When he was 14, George and his brother Walter went to live at a juvenile home, and in March 1895 the Green boys were on a boat for Canada.
George Green was placed with Helen Findlay, a single woman who had a farm outside Wiarton, Ontario. Her brother had recently died, and she needed help with the farm work; a teenaged boy seemed like a good match. But Green couldn't match Findlay's expectations: he was small for his age, he had "defective vision" and was called "backward." On the evening of 8 November 1895, seven months after his arrival at Findlay's farm, George Green died. An autopsy found signs of malnutrition, frostbite, gangrene, and frequent beatings (neighbors confirmed that Findlay hit Green, often). Findlay was charged with the death, and her trial was front-page news in much of Canada. A hung jury couldn't reach a conclusion on Findlay's guilt. She was never convicted. (A later effort to convict her of child abuse and neglect was also unsuccessful.)
But there were consequences paid in the wake of Green's death. Instead of seeing the Green-Findlay story as a crime against a vulnerable foster child placed in the home of a violent adult, the Canadian press spun Findlay's violence as extreme but understandable, and framed immigrant children as "diseased offscourings of the hotbeds of hellish slumdom" (quoted in Wagner 1982: 150-154). To review:
- George Green was killed because he was disabled and didn't meet the expectations of his foster mother;
- Helen Findlay's crimes against him were excused because he was disabled, and
- his story was made the basis of further discrimination against disabled immigrant children.
Upper, left: immigrants undergoing medical inspection at Ellis Island, found here.
Lower, right: A photo of some Barnardo boys still in England in 1905, showing some with crutches; this was taken a few months before Thomas Barnardo's death that same year, and is found here.
POSTSCRIPT: Barnardo was famous for photographing every boy he emigrated, before they set sail for their new homes. So there must have been a picture of George Green, taken at age 14. Anyone have any leads? There were probably newspaper images in the Findlay trial coverage, but I haven't found those yet either.
ANOTHER POSTSCRIPT: We posted last Canada Day about two recent cases before the Canadian Supreme Court, in which families immigrating to Canada were initially turned away because their disabled children might impose "excessive demands" on state services. The majority ruled that such broad interpretation of immigration law was not in keeping with the law's intent and purpose. So that's what's been happening lately on the subject. (Caughtya asked.)
Douglas Baynton, "Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History," in Paul K. Longmore and Lauri Umansky, eds., The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York University Press 2001): 33-57.
Gillian Wagner, Children of the Empire (Wiedenfeld and Nicolson 1982).
A FEW SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING:
June Dwyer, "Disease, Deformity, and Defiance: Writing the Language of Immigration Law and the Eugenics Movement on the Immigrant Body," MELUS 28(1)(Spring 2003): online here.
Michele Langfield, "Voluntarism, Salvation, and Rescue: British Juvenile Migration to Australia and Canada, 1890-1939," Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 32(2)(May 2004): 86-114.
Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern, "The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society," Milbank Quarterly 80(4)(2002): 757-788.
Penny L. Richards, "Points of Entry: Disability and the Historical Geography of Immigration," Disability Studies Quarterly 24(3)(Summer 2004).