Disabilities and Witch Trials


The never-ending fight for disability rights is something I’m passionate about. Halloween is coming soon, and my sister and I visited Salem Village last October, so I would like to discuss how disabilities were connected to two notorious witch trials.

During the 17th Century, people with disabilities were often considered inferior. For instance, many of them were persecuted as witches. The way we treat and represent others can have devastating, and in some cases, deadly, consequences. The trials emphasize this point, as well as the fact that people often fear what they don’t understand.

17th Century Witch Trials

In the 17th Century, people often believed that disabilities were linked with witchcraft and serving the Devil. The Lancashire Witch Trials, which were carried out in Lancaster Castle in England, involved twelve people being charged with witchcraft. Six of the eleven so-called “Pendle Witches” came from two feuding families of healers. Elizabeth Device, one of the accused, was deformed. Many believed her condition was owed to her association with the Devil.

The infamous Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts began in the Spring of 1692, after a couple of girls in Salem Village began having terrible contortions and screaming fits. This led to the townspeople, including the aforementioned girls, falsely accusing many women and men of sorcery. Nineteen people accused of witchcraft were executed.

Disabilities were connected to the accused and used as evidence against them. Both the accusers and confessors used certain disabilities as proof that people were witches. Like witchcraft, disabilities were often believed to be a sin against God. The people of Salem eventually atoned for the trials, which ended a year later.

Disability Representation

Fortunately, we’ve moved beyond persecuting people with disabilities as witches, but media still has a long way to go when it comes to the way it represents them. People with limb differences were not impressed with the 2020 cinematic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, The Witches. This was because the film’s villain, the Grand High Witch, had misshapen hands and feet. In other words, her strange features were designed to be horrifying. This sent out a negative message, that people with physical differences were evil and to be feared. Needless to say, disability awareness is a very difficult issue to grasp.

Although we’ve been learning from the terrible treatment of people with disabilities in the Lancashire and Salem witch trials, improving upon how we treat and portray them is still a difficult process. It’s important to learn about events like this to keep them from happening again and move forward by portraying people with disabilities accurately.

This history has inspired me to raise disability awareness in real life and in my stories. Many of them are about people who learn to cope with and embrace their differences. If we learn from events like these witch trials, we can become more accepting and sensitive people.

Happy Halloween!