Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of
Deaf People as Disabled
Mainstreaming and the Retreat from Segregation
At the forefront of the battles of the 1960s and 1970s against established, rationalized, and intensely discriminatory bureaucratic processes were battles to transform education systems. People sought to break out of the cages of reason and pursue innovative educational processes. Innovative educators reemerged on the historical scene. Ivan Illich, Paulo Friere, A. S. Neale, and Neil Postman, among many, challenged systems that focused on normalization through standardized curricula and standardized classroom practice. They challenged the classificatory schemes that typecast pupils and streamed them into administratively tidy systems. In the process, they prompted the parents of children with disabilities to question the educational segregation and treatment of their children. The drive to desegregate children into the mainstream of everyday life presented schools and the community in general with a population that they rarely knew existed. It is a process that has been going on around the world (see Fulcher 1989; Barton 1989).
Pressure for the integration of the so-called “disabled” into the “normal” world, into the mainstream of everyday life, challenged society’s most basic discourse: the nature of humanity. How effective was that challenge? We turn again to an Australian example because, in Australia, the adoption by the government of the state of Victoria of mainstreaming as an explicit and clearly articulated policy went far further in the establishment of mainstreaming as policy and, indeed, as practice than was the case in Britain. The Victorian program appeared to support Buckley and Birds’s comment that while the education system in the United Kingdom had been extremely slow to address the link between the social and educational needs of people with disabilities, requiring “a paradigm shift in the way we think about people with disabilities in our society,” this shift was “much further advanced in North America and Australia” (Buckley and Bird 1994, 15). But was policy reflected in practice? The Australian case study highlights the links between mainstreaming and the ongoing cultural construction of “the disabled.”
In 1984, the government of the state of Victoria stated its “commitment to provide necessary resources and . . . [its] concern with enrolling and supporting in regular schools children who were formerly segregated, or at risk of being segregated from them” (Office of the Director-General 1984, 8). That report of the ministerial review (a) explicitly opposed a view of disability that focused on professionals categorizing impairments by means of individually centered ascertainment, (b) explicitly recommended equalization of the relationship between parents and service providers, and (c) focused on the educational system or structure rather than on the child’s named impairment. It asked that explanations for failure be sought not in the child but in “aspects of the education system” (9) and that these failures be rectified not by means of an orientation toward the “special educational needs” of the child because “this [approach] belongs to a deficit model” but, rather, by providing “additional educational requirements.”
Research into the practice of mainstreaming showed that what resulted was a discriminatory practice far removed from the ideals outlined above. The formerly segregated “disabled” were expected to “assimilate,” though only “as much as possible,” to fit into the existing cultures and practices of the mainstream schools. Few teachers regarded total assimilation as possible but expected that specialist services would be required on a continuous basis to compensate for assumed deficiencies. “The disabled” remained marginalized, effectively segregated within the regular classroom as an “other,” as “integration students.”
Almost without exception, the program, especially at the secondary level, was understood as involving the use of special personnel (aides and therapists) and technology to cope with children with a pathology of body, behavior, or both in the regular classroom. The classroom, the curriculum, and the timetable remained as before and, ideally, the “normal” children proceeded as before, unhindered by the special needs of the “integration kids” who were looked after by specialist personnel and were integrated “where possible.”
As far as goals and guiding principles are concerned, the integration policy of the Victorian government, in its opposition to categorization and professionalism, appeared to go to the heart of discriminatory practice, seeking failure not in the child but in social structures and relationships. But the machinery devised to achieve its goals and the way that machinery was (and still is) interpreted and used by administrators and teachers often tended to work in the opposite direction. Research into mainstreaming in Britain revealed similar results, with teachers and administrators operating in terms of conventional categorizations of disability and assuming that special facilities would be provided for the integrated “disabled” to ensure that the “normal” pupils could proceed as before.14 Indeed, many current mainstreaming practices overtly provide special educational facilities that are operated by special education teachers within mainstream schools, what is being referred to as “inclusion” rather than “integration.” The children who were formerly segregated are now in the mainstream but are included as “disabled” students, their medically based categorizations intact.