Disability Bigotry As Old As Downton Abbey

Not much has changed in 100 years since John Bates, the clichéd cripple in Downton Abbey, was cast as unable to do his job and a dodgy criminal character.

By Stephen Pate – Downton Abbey is the tremendously popular period drama from Great Britain about an aristocratic family from 1912 to 1922.  We find it amusing how stiff and un-modern people were back then, with their stifling class distinctions.  In Series 1, Episode 1 the Titanic sinking is announced over a telegraph line. The people worry about ancient laws of inheritance and title.

Obviously modern life has changed since 1912.  We’ve replaced the with iPhones. Rickety old cars were replaced by fast cars and now with hybrids and electric cars.  Unfortunately old-fashioned disability bigotry lives on.  People with disabilities still get sacked from their jobs or can’t get hired.

Just like Mr. Bates, people with disabilities still face discrimination. I was disabled with polio 60 years ago and have had to endure pity, condescension, violence and discrimination throughout my life.

My experience is common for most people living with disabilities, despite human rights legislation. It’s always easy to pick on cripples and people with developmental disabilities, especially for people who feel personally undervalued.

You rarely see people with disabilities fulfilling leading roles in society as business owners, CEO’s, bank presidents, politicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers. The disabled are still portrayed as second or third string weak actors in entertainment. People with disabilities have unusually high rates of unemployment and live below the average income, often in poverty.

Mr. Bates and his bad leg

Lord Grantham and his servant Mr. Bates, his employment terminated

John Bates and Lord Grantham served together in the Boer War and Mr. Bates had a shrapnel wound that made him limp. He has a “bad leg” and can’t do all the physical tasks of other servants. The disability, earned honorably in the service of his country, changed his life and status.

How do you feel about our veterans today? Are they treated the same as everyone else or just trotted out for ceremonial respect on Remembrance or Veterans Day?

Lord Grantham struggles with employing the disabled John Bates

In Episode 1, Lord Grantham sacks Mr. Bates for his disability. Lady Grantham, the family and the staff agreed. Get rid of the cripple since he can’t do all the work.  “Initially he is poorly treated by most of the staff due to the fact that he uses a cane (he was injured in the Boer War). Thomas Barrow and Sarah O’Brien make several attempts to get rid of him…O’Brien knocks his cane away when he is standing in a receiving line to greet guests arriving.” Downton Abbey Wiki

How do you see Bates? Is he someone who should move on, give it up because he can’t do the job?

The Downton Staff plot against Mr. Bates. Thomas Barrow and Sarah O’Brien are especially determined to get rid of Bates. A plot twist has Mr. Bates sent to prison only saved by the determination of his new wife Anna that he is an innocent man.

Eventually, Mr. Bates is rescued from prison by Lord Grantham who is a decent man, despite his upper class background.  Lord Grantham is an aristocrat struggling with the past and nervously entering the modern era.  His upper class conservative background is against more modern liberal values that the Dowager Countess Grantham calls soft.

John Bates wrongfully convicted of murder

One could easily fall into the trap of pitying Bates. His disability from a war wound sounds noble but he is still less than a whole man, in the eyes of the Grantham’s and his fellow servants. When he won’t just go off and live on a military pension, he seems to deserve prison.  He looks moody, perhaps harboring a dark personality.

I am not sure if Julian Fellowes meant to write John Bates as a prototype of the disabled but he has done a good job.  Prior to the United Nations, the disabled were considered less than whole and wholesome.  Religious people believed the physically and mentally disabled had committed sin for which they were paying a price. Disability was believed to be the result of demon possession. The best thing to do with the disabled was lock them up in asylums and hospitals.

Hitler and the Nazi’s euthanized 250,000 Germans and Europeans with disabilities along with 6 million Jews. To protect minorities, the United Nations passed Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to affirm the rights of all people.   Rights for people with disabilities developed slowly from that point, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the US Americans with Disabilities Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  Other countries have various forms of disability rights laws.

Discrimination still exists despite these laws. The modern principle of accommodation would have given Mr. Bates’ employer the responsibility to reasonably accommodate his disability.  Perhaps they would have installed an elevator, known in large homes even back then.

What laws have difficulty controlling are miserable bigots like Thomas Barrow and Sarah O’Brien.  Bigotry and discrimination are still part of the human psyche, bigotry against people of different races, religions, nationalities and people with disabilities.

I’ve been disabled since I was three. Despite personal and business success, there is always some bigoted person who feels it’s their job to make my life miserable.  I have experienced everything from physical attacks, fawning to job discrimination. You can’t be any good the bigots say. You’re a cripple is what Lord Grantham’s family and servants said about Mr. Bates.

Follow me on Twitter at @sdpate or on Facebook at NJN NetworkOyeTimes and IMA News Buzz. All photos from Downton Abbey copyright ITV/PBS.

By Stephen Pate, NJN Network

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