Ancient Greece Used Ramps for the Disabled

Eric Bailey

As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 signed by President George H.W. Bush, a Cal State Long Beach Researcher discovers accessibility is nothing all that new.

In a recently published article in the Antiquity academic journal, Cal State Long Beach researcher and lecturer Debby Sneed writes of her recent discovery of ancient Greek temples and other holy structures were built with consideration for the disabled. She was re-evaluating the geographical distribution of ramps in ancient Greece when she made the discovery.

“Ramps are pretty rare in the ancient Greek world, so the presence of 11 at a single site (Epidaurus) is significant,” Sneed said. “Even if it were a regional phenomenon, as some have suggested, my argument is the same, because that large number at a single site, wherever it is, requires an explanation.”

Sneed found that the majority of the ancient ramps to be at healing sanctuaries, where certain mobility-impaired visitors came in search of help from the healing god Asclepius.

Though Sneed mentions the degree of difficulty for her discovery to be conclusive, it is an observation that historians must contend with in their own studies of architecture and how it impacted those with disabilities.

“Even where we do see similarities, as in the construction of ramps to promote accessibility, we cannot attribute them to the same causes,” Sneed said in her article. “Ancient Greece had no civil rights as we understand them, nor were there organized groups to fight for such rights.”

Sneed is no stranger to mobility and access for those with disabilities.

“I started looking at disability as a concept while teaching a disability studies class at UCLA. I became very aware of all the ramps while traversing campus,” Sneed said. “Architecture communicates who that place is built in mind for.”

A 2011 report conducted by the World Health Organization estimated that 15% of the world’s population possesses some type of disability. While it would be impossible to even estimate the number of persons with disabilities in ancient Greece, Sneed’s discovery strongly suggests there was a disabled population.

The American with Disabilities Act enacted July 26, 1990 was the United States’ first comprehensive civil rights legislation that sought to eliminate barriers that restricted many Americans with disabilities from participating in American mainstream society.

Though as a nation we only may be celebrating 30 years of federal legislation regarding the rights and civil liberation, Sneed’s work shows us that inclusion of those who face disabilities is a practice as old as time itself.


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