Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of
Deaf People as Disabled
Compulsory schooling, dating in Britain from the Education Act of 1870, was generated by the logic of the ideology of equality and by a range of sometimes contradictory forces, including the demand for literate semiskilled and skilled workers and the demand of an increasingly bureaucratized administration for literate and numerate citizens. Whatever the causes, compulsory schooling demanded the effective coordination of teachers, schools, and curricula. Rational administration required an ordered educational environment. The idiosyncratic school, teacher, or pupil created administrative complexities. The formalization of teaching qualifications, the categorization of the teachers in terms of what and who they taught, the need for uniform curricula, and the need to categorize pupils into graded classes and vocationally oriented streams were all rationalized as administratively appropriate. Prospective pupils were tested to determine their appropriate places in the increasingly complex educational system. The tests themselves were “refined” and multiplied to meet these administrative demands.
As we proceed through the age of bureaucracy, the people who come to dominate the history of education are not innovative educators but professional administrators. We also enter an age of overt linguistic imperialism with respect to the education of linguistic minorities because the devaluation of minority languages and the imposition of the dominant language is not simply the decision of an individual school principal but also becomes government policy.
Professionalism and the Depersonalization of Disabilities
Professionalism was a vital ingredient in the consolidation of imperial superiority at home and abroad in the second half of the nineteenth century. The medical profession played a key role, not only in the assertion of professional authority and status but also in the biological legitimation of white, male, Anglo-Saxon, bourgeois superiority. This period is when psychiatry consolidated its position and became a “profession” in which experts were dealing not only with the embodied impediments to rational progress but also with those “incipient lunatics” that threatened society (see Showalter 1987, chap. 4). It is also the period when, as we will see in detail in chapter 7, the professionalization of teaching drove teachers who were deaf from the schools and transformed education into therapy. Many histories of deaf education see the international commitment to oralism at the Milan Congress of Teachers of the Deaf in 1880 as causing the disenfranchisement of people who were deaf. History is much more complex than that. One can best understand specific influential moves such as the Milan congress by exploring the interweaving of industrialization, imperialism, bureaucratization, and professionalization. A group of thoroughly socialized individuals who were middle class and who maintained an imperial orientation were reinterpreting the goals and purpose of deaf education. In doing so, they were, like so many around them, orienting themselves toward others in evolutionist terms that were soon to become distinctly eugenicist.
In this intensely professional, intensely imperialist, and thus, condescending environment, people who were diagnosed as being mad—especially the poor and females rich as well as poor—fared badly. They were scorned and manipulated but, nonetheless, were the source of esteem for the doctors if they recovered. People who were disabled from birth fared even worse. They were condemned by the late nineteenth century not only as racial degenerates but also as genetic incurables. To become deaf, blind, crippled, feebleminded, or mad, if not the result of a clear physical accident, was assumed to be the result of disease. Although the propensity to disease was sometimes seen as being associated with genetic weakness, disease might be dealt with, even cured. Those who suffered these “pathological” conditions from birth were, on the whole, simply cared for at best. In their case, pathology, was assumed to permeate the individual. They could not return to normality. At best, they could be studied scientifically—measured, observed, and even used for scientific experiments.