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The Life Cycle of Disability in Ancient Greece


Through the lenses of Disability Studies and archaeological theories of identity, I use ancient Greek art, literature, architecture, laws, and bioarchaeology to investigate how ancient Greek communities (ca. 1000 to 100 BCE) understood, treated, and accommodated physical disability among their members. Most specifically, I trace how the intersection of disability with age resulted in different negotiations for infants, children, adults, and the elderly, as well as for mythological figures like the limping god Hephaistos. I demonstrate that far from being ejected from their families or communities, disabled ancient Greeks were integrated where they could be and accommodated where they couldn’t. I highlight, for example, the ways that parents and midwives assisted infants who were born with conditions like cleft palate, as well as military exemptions for disabled adult men in 4th century BCE Athens. I emphasize how individuals with a variety of somatic realities participated and engaged in their communities. By removing disability from a biomedical frame of reference, with its attendant prejudices and estimations of ability predicated on modern modes of production and interaction, and re-locating it to an active, social context, I demonstrate the contingent and constructed nature of disability and resist generalizations about the universal plight of the disabled in the past.

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