Skip to main content

Understanding disability in the past

ASU scientist studies the surprising lives of ancient people with disabilities — and how their societies perceived them

photo of Matczak going through archives
May 20, 2019

One in four adults in the U.S. has a disability —  a condition of the body or mind that makes it more difficult for the person with that condition to do certain activities or interact with the world around them — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, disability crosses every social boundary and ultimately impacts everyone. The same is true for ancient societies as well.

Magdalena Matczak, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change’s Center for Bioarchaeological Research, is out to uncover that intriguing history.

She studies how people in central Europe from the 14th–18th centuries viewed the diseases and conditions that society defines as disabilities today.

As a bioarchaeologist, she chiefly researches this by examining skeletal remains, which can tell her everything from an individual’s sex to diet to where they grew up.

“Bodies and identities pose a question about norms in society — which are accepted, and which are not?” Matczak said.

Impairments, which are functional limitations such as the loss of a limb or of memory, were likely more common in the past, Matczak said. The lack of modern medical knowledge would contribute to a higher number of conditions than today.

Whether disability was more common, however, is a more nuanced question.

"Perception of disability varies across cultures and time. For this reason, the first question to ask is: Did people recognize certain diseases and conditions as disabilities?" 
— ASU postdoctoral researcher Magdalena Matczak

“We have to remember that disability describes the relationship between people with impairments and their society,” she said.

Those without impairments may create various physical, social or political barriers that prevent those with impairments from fully participating in society. These barriers are what create disability. For example, someone who moves in a wheelchair has a physical impairment, but the lack of a ramp into a building creates a disability.

“Perception of disability varies across cultures and time. For this reason, the first question to ask is: Did people recognize certain diseases and conditions as disabilities?” Matczak said.

She uses a range of methods to study this complex question, including analyzing historical texts to learn how past societies defined disability; examining human bones to understand past diseases; looking at archaeological artifacts to gain insight into the treatment and social standing of people with impairments; and conducting biogeochemical analyses to determine people’s diet and place of origin.

“The interdisciplinary approach is necessary to understand all the different aspects of life for people of the past,” she explained.

Last fall, Matczak spent time in Europe creating a database of excavation reports and diaries — and there encountered her first major hiccup in the project. She assumed, based on previous experience, that it would take about a month to gather the data. However, the first institute she visited was missing necessary reports, forcing her to look in the archives of another institute, where reports were out of order. The process ended up taking her four months.

The mundane work of research, however, is often the key to the greatest insights.

"Evidence suggests that she was not marginalized or rejected because of her disease." 
— Magdalena Matczak

For example, Matczak found evidence that a woman who lived during the 12th century in Kałdus, Poland, had leprosy, yet was included by her community.

“She needed care and help with daily activities such as preparing food, taking care of hygiene and providing clothing. The fact that she survived until a very advanced stage of her disease might indicate that someone took care of her,” Matczak said.

Though leprosy is regarded as a stigmatized disease connected with disability today, it appears this particular individual was accepted and may even have had a high social status.

“She was the only one with leprosy in her community, and though many other burials in the same cemetery did not contain any goods, she was buried in the center with a ring and a knife,” she added. “This evidence suggests that she was not marginalized or rejected because of her disease.”

Beyond these discoveries about the past, however, Matczak believes her project could yield important benefits for modern society.

Foremost is that people with disabilities will gain new knowledge about their history and culture.

“I have talked to people in Europe, including individuals with physical disabilities, about my research, and they have told me it’s valuable to them because they would like to know how past societies treated those with disabilities,” she said.

In addition, Matczak hopes her research will help social scientists and policy makers in their work to improve the treatment of people with disabilities. But the biggest takeaway she wants to leave people with is that the past of this particular community is an integral part of humanity’s common story.

“We cannot appreciate our heritage without understanding the past of all groups within society, including people with disabilities,” she said.

Follow updates on the project’s website and Facebook page.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme within Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions under grant agreement No. 796917.

Top photo: School of Human Evolution and Social Change postdoctoral researcher Magdalena Matczak goes through archived excavation reports to research disability in the past. Photo courtesy of Magdalena Matczak

More Health and medicine


Student posing with grandparents in front of a fountain.

College of Health Solutions student making a difference in community, her own family

By Aidan Hansen Arizona State University undergraduate student Ansley Devine loves helping her occupational therapy patients, but there are two who hold a very special place in her heart. A…

College of Health Solutions graduate Tatum Dykstra

Outstanding Graduate works to make change happen for communities with food insecurities

By Aidan Hansen Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates. Arizona native and College of Health Solutions grad student Tatum Dykstra has a passion…

PhD exchange student Grace Colley stands outside a Biodesign building with desert landscaping

First exchange student for Biodesign Institute Europe bridges labs 5,000 miles apart

This spring semester, Grace Colley traveled to Arizona State University and became the first student to participate in the Biodesign Institute Europe student exchange program. In doing so, she helped…