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American Annals of the Deaf

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Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled

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The overt purpose of medical and psychological testing was to channel people toward different sections of the labor market according to their educational and vocational potential. That potential was established through IQ testing. This concern with educational and vocational potential is what gave rise to the increasing diversification of educational programs for deaf students. The educational and vocational potential of a child who was deaf was determined by the “level of hearing loss,” in other words, by their potential to respond to an oral education. Children who were severely and profoundly deaf were sent to the old schools for the deaf and were assumed to be capable of only a very basic education because “education” was equated with language proficiency, and language proficiency was equated with proficiency in the dominant language, both spoken and written. The old deaf schools also increasingly took in children with multiple disabilities, a group that had formerly been denied access to the deaf schools and had been confined in noneducational asylums or simply kept at home. Their presence reinforced the image that all of the students who were deaf were essentially ineducable.

In Britain, America, and Australia, IQ testing in schools during the prewar period had been oriented toward the identification of “the feebleminded” to ensure their segregation for the protection of the normal population. Through the 1950s, IQ testing continued to yield a “subnormal” population “in need of” segregation of one sort or another, whether in special school or home. At the same time, testing was also yielding the students with high IQs who would be educated in selective high schools. Testing was increasingly legitimized as a practice that yielded not “the feebleminded” for segregation away from the mass of “normality” but, rather, two other groups: those in need of special, “remedial,” or basic education and those highly intelligent students who would be trained as an intellectual elite to lead society toward the twenty-first century, into a golden age of innovative progress. The stress had shifted to the creative use of scientific testing as an aid to postwar progress, including the therapeutic training of “the subnormal” for participation in the workforce and, if necessary, participation through sheltered workshops. Bureaucratization that demanded even greater uniformity and the effective streaming of students toward different sections of the labor market encompassed the education system even more.

This concentration on the testing of individual aptitude and the development of specialized educational programs to cultivate these different aptitudes involved an ideological shift toward an even greater individualism. People who were diagnosed as in need of individuated therapeutic treatment now confronted a maze of therapists, specialists in the minutiae of “disabilities,” including speech therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, psychiatrists, child psychologists, and special education experts.

Deinstitutionalization and the Contemporary Construction of Disabling Practices

The stress on education rather than on care, on training for living rather than on long-term segregation, opened the door for a new wave of normalization, accompanied this time by deinstitutionalization. These policies and their attempted practice have confronted both people who are able-bodied and people who are labeled “disabled” with a range of problems. People who are labeled “disabled” face the very substantiated fear of “normalization” that results in the continuation of everyday discrimination accompanied by a convenient denial of special needs (see Barham 1992; Murphy 1991). For many people who are able-bodied, deinstitutionalization threatens not only their identity, especially when faced with the everyday presence of those formerly hidden away, but also the disciplined and ordered nature of their environment.

Deinstitutionalization is, on the whole, directly oriented toward the subversion of disabling practices, yet again, these efforts are themselves subverted by subtle, usually unrecognized processes. The general move toward deinstitutionalization that has affected “the disabled” in general will be discussed further in the concluding chapter. We deal here with the effect of deinstitutionalization in the context of schooling, with “mainstreaming,” also referred to as “integration” or “inclusion.”


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