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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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In 1792, four years before the establishment of the York Retreat, another establishment was founded: the Asylum for the Support and Education of the Deaf and Dumb Children of the Poor in the Grange Road in Bermondsey in London, for the “moral management” of deaf children. In these other asylums of the early nineteenth century, the asylums for the deaf and blind, the same missionary zeal prevailed (see chapter 5).

As mentioned above, moral management did not necessarily dispense with “medicines.” The treatment of the body involved “medicine;” the treatment of the mind, “management.” But medical treatments still were seen as useful in the context of wider therapeutics. In Paris at the National Institute for the Deaf, the surgeon Jean Marc Itard was exploring the mind of the wild boy of Aveyron and preparing to use a wide range of surgical and other medical procedures on the institute’s pupils in an effort to make them hear. Although surgeons traveled throughout the Western world comparing techniques and training in new procedures, the role of surgery in the emerging schools for the people who were both poor and deaf varied from country to country.[2] Thus, while the Paris school in early nineteenth-century France became a virtual laboratory for Itard’s horrendous experiments, the deaf asylum in Britain remained a place for the moral management of the mind, shunning the intrusion of “medicine.”[3] In Napoleonic France, the state defined education as a public enterprise, a normalizing process in the interests of order and conformity (see Foucault 1979). However, in Britain, the state did not intrude into the educational sphere. Rather, a strong protestant ethic stressed the importance of charitable works through the establishment and private support of charitable institutions that were oriented toward moral uplift. But outside the schools, surgeons such as Cooper and Turnbull experimented on deaf adults.

The moralists and educators of the early nineteenth century wanted to normalize. But this predilection went against the grain of a society that demanded a clear boundary between the normal and the pathological, not only in theory but also in practice; against the grain of a polity and legal system that demanded rational electors and citizens; against the grain of an economy that demanded an individualized approach to work by able-bodied workers; and against the grain of privatized religions that stressed the vital importance of the work ethic and an individuated as well as rational relation to one’s God.

“Moral management constitutes the individualistic, heroic phase of early psychiatry,” writes Porter (1987, 222), but he adds, “this ‘Herculean’ phase proved short-lived. It was too personal to be permanent. Weberian bureaucratization set in, and the future was to lie with system rather than with charisma” (223). In this Age of Empire, the whole atmosphere and orientation of the asylum was transformed. The missionary zeal and the atmosphere of “family” were no longer appropriate. The “Darwinians” were particularly conscious of their social standing, of their professional status and superiority, of their honor in the community. They did not seek moral management and an identification with the humanity of their patients by means of a pseudo-kinship, as the moral managers had done. Rather, they sought to distance themselves from the pathological in the same way as the imperial power distanced itself from those it conquered through the assertion of racial and cultural superiority.

The Iron Cage of Bureaucracy[4]

By the end of the nineteenth century, the combined forces of industrialization and imperialism had created societies of enormous complexity. Economic and political relationships were rarely governed by community ties and responsibilities but were coordinated through “rational” administrative procedures. With the majority of the population living in relatively isolated families and alienated from their neighborhoods as well as at work, access to educational, medical, and leisure facilities depended increasingly on formalized, depersonalized, “rational” administrative structures and processes. The age of bureaucracy had dawned, and in the process, the whole character not only of psychology but also of childhood and education were transformed.


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