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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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So forceful was the sensible, empiricist focus promoted by Hobbes and Locke that the mind became nothing more than the product of sensory experience. Although Descartes’s dualism survived to separate the psychological from the biological, his spiritual and even mystical view of mind disappeared from establishment medicine and psychology. The mind became nothing more than its observable products and, in the hands of psychiatry, little more than the physical brain, judged in terms of the normality of mentally induced behaviors and the normality of brain functioning. Disorderly behavior, if not the product of a disordered and therefore pathological body was assumed to be the product of a disordered and therefore pathological mind. Control, order, adherence to the norm, compliance with the norm, the expected, and the conventional were the marks of normality. Above all, as we pointed out in the previous chapter, the ongoing Cartesian separation of mind and body focused diagnostic procedures on language. The production of irrational language was seen as evidence of an irrational mind. The production of no language was frequently seen as evidence of mindlessness.

Thus, the experts who claimed control of the insane and the “disabled” at the end of the eighteenth century saw in their patients people who, because they could not reason in a way that measured up to their arbitrary normative standards, must have their lives controlled for them by others. Once confined and displayed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they became the objects of a new kind of display and of a new and more encompassing control in the nineteenth century. They were displayed to the clinical gaze and controlled not only physically but also to the very core of their being.

The Attempted Normalization of the Pathological: The Moral Therapy Movement

The focus on sensory development generated an inclination on the part of those who dealt with “the abnormal” to cure rather than simply to confine. The curative process was in turn seen as integrally linked to the sensory environment within which the treatment was to take place, thus giving rise to the concept of the asylum.

As with the diagnosis of physical pathology, the clinical gaze was, in the case of the diagnosis of mental disorders, on the body and its behavior. Although the use of drugs and a wide range of drastic mechanical therapies were used in the majority of cases, a new approach emerged, that was focused on the moral management of the patient, particularly through the influence of William Battie.[1] This individualistic and therapeutic approach to madness was referred to as “moral management” to indicate the need to deal also with the patient’s mind and not just with the body.

The move to systemic, group-based moral therapy instead of individual moral management dates effectively from the founding of the York Retreat in 1796, founded in response to the death in 1793 of a young Quaker widow in the York Asylum who died under mysterious circumstances associated with the use of medical remedies and with general inhuman brutality. With missionary zeal, the practitioners in the York Retreat sought to return those who had gone insane to the rational world through moral regeneration. Normalization was the driving force. Through the thorough programming of their patients’ lives, they hoped that order would triumph. For those recently rendered insane, the program would result in a return to normality; for the “fools” and “idiots,” the “incurables,” and those born to unreason, it would be a demonstration of the power of discipline, of order, of education, and above all, of morality. Many of those who collected the insane and “disabled” together in asylums were concerned as much with the saving of souls as with the transformation of behavior.


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