14th Annual Tom E. Moses Memorial Lecture discusses disabilities and the U.S. Constitution
SHEPHERDSTOWN — From an early age, Frank Harkin was diagnosed with a disability. Although he has since passed on, his experiences as a deaf man in America left a lasting impression on the nation, thanks to his brother, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who has spent his life crafting legislation to protect the civil rights of millions of Americans with physical and mental disabilities.
On Sept. 17, Tom spoke about “The Constitution and Persons with Disabilities” at the Robert C. Byrd Center, during the 14th Annual Tom E. Moses Memorial Lecture on the United States Constitution. The lecture is held in conjunction with Constitution Day, and was established by the three daughters of the late Tom E. Moses, a long-time civil libertarian and World War II veteran who earned a Bronze Star and later served on the board of directors of the ACLU-WV.
“It’s very meaningful to see our father’s legacy carried on. Like Senator Byrd, our father always carried a pocket Constitution with him. He was just very much into social justice, and before he died we were trying to think of ways to remember him,” said Lynn Moses Yellott, of Shepherdstown. “We wanted to do something to honor him, and this is a wonderful opportunity.”
Yellott’s middle sister, Jeri Moses-Eichler, was not able to attend the lecture, but Yellott sat at the event with her other sister, Merle Crawford, of Pennsylvania, and their families. According to Crawford, although the family didn’t choose this year’s speaker, the lecture resonated with her on a personal level.
“I’ve been working with people with disabilities for 39 years,” Crawford, an occupational therapist, said. “I think people interpret it very differently from what a disability means. It’s something that affects somebody’s functioning every day, whether it’s being blind or autism or mental functionalism. Many times it’s other peoples’ perceptions that are the disability, rather than the person’s characteristics.”
The lecture reflected Crawford’s analysis, as Tom discussed how the lack of a Constitutional precedent determining the rights of disabled persons allowed disabled persons to be mistreated and cut off from the rest of the world throughout American history.
“Most Americans have heard about the darkest chapters of our history, but few have ever heard of the eugenics movement, and the harm it caused to thousands of Americans,” Tom said, explaining the 1880s movement was focused on “improving” the U.S. population’s genetics by sterilizing all persons who were considered “defective or mentally unsound.”
Ironically, proponents of the movement included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Helen Keller and H.G. Wells, according to Tom. However, history shows that more than one mentally healthy person from that time period was sterilized against his/her will, after being committed to a mental institution.
Other issues continued to exist for disabled persons in America, long after the eugenics movement ended. Treatment within institutions for the mentally or physically disabled often was abusive, and Ugly Laws banned disabled persons from being seen in public.
The Ugly Laws were eventually eradicated in the 1970s, and since then, treatment of disabled persons has improved. Some of the improvements are the result of Tom’s work in developing The Americans with Disabilities Act, which is often called the “Emancipation Proclamation for people with disabilities.”
“We’ve come a long way since then,” Tom said, mentioning there is one change he hopes to see in our treatment of mentally disabled individuals. “The jails have become our major institution in America for housing persons with mental health problems, and it’s because they don’t get any medical help. It’s a lot of the same thing as in the past — we isolate people with disabilities. We must remember, in the words of Robert Byrd, ‘The Constitution is for everybody.'”