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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 intense scientific activity generated not only the technological advances that fed industrial capitalism but also the biological and psychological theories that gave rise to evolutionism and eugenics. These evolutionist and eugenicist theories provided an apparently rational legitimacy, on the one hand, for imperial domination abroad and, on the other hand, for domination based in class, race, ethnicity, gender, and able-bodiedness at home. Above all, they provided the rationale and the substance for the bureaucratic administration of citizens. Although bureaucracy took a number of forms in the West in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all these forms relied on eugenicist processes in the categorization and administration of society. Through the first half of the twentieth century, variations of eugenics provided the ideological base for the development of administrative processes in a wide range of political settings. The rational administrative procedures of Britain and America depended as much on eugenicist views of humanity to provide the categories required for effective administration as the individuated charismatic dictatorship of Hitler did.

The complex intertwining of colonialism and Darwinian evolutionism produced a sense of hereditary superiority among the British upper and middle classes. This hereditary superiority was the rationale for their domination of colonial subjects and the working classes alike. Their superiority was now rationalized not only in terms of their dedication to work and their greater cultural refinement, their “distinction,” to use Bourdieu’s term with its connotations of superior taste, but also in terms of their genetic superiority. [5] They saw themselves as biologically superior and could remain so only through the segregation of inferior stock at home and overseas.

The sources of madness and other pathologies were sought in biology, especially sources related to the genetic propensity for parents of particular quality to produce disabled, genetically inferior children. Parents were ostracized, and the “insane” were segregated simply to protect the rest of humanity. The white bourgeoisie asserted a superiority that was based not only in reason but also in nature. In this environment, those deemed physically “unnatural” (i.e., disabled), especially if they were racially different, fared particularly badly. They were the antithesis of what was desirable in a white, male, Anglo-Saxon, cultured, and rational human being.

To excel as a man meant to excel not only intellectually but also, at least as importantly, at sport. The Oxbridge blue; the Rhodes scholar; the cricket-playing, rugby-playing, polo-playing officer in colonial or military service: these were the pinnacles of able-bodiedness. The concepts of sport as the pursuit of competitive games, of the sportsman as one practicing and excelling in games, and of sportsmanship as derived from the effective and rational pursuit of sporting activities all emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century. Sport is no longer simply a dalliance, a casual pastime, but a serious business, the mark of bourgeois manliness, the hallmark of genetically advanced able-bodiedness. “A healthy body and a healthy mind” was more than a vague cliché or aphorism. It was the central article of faith of the Darwinian medical profession. Where mental disability occurred, this profession sought a physical sign—in head shape, spine, or general physique—and where physical “abnormality” occurred, they assumed mental problems would be found.

Prior to the First World War, the burgeoning psychiatric profession diagnosed the vast proportion of people who were not simply disabled in limb as “mentally retarded,” “mentally defective,” or “feebleminded.” [6] This approach was consolidated by the development of intelligence quotient (IQ) tests in the early 1900s, allowing for the measurement of mental proficiency and the subsequent declaration of levels of intellectual pathology. Like the people in the colonies who were labeled “racially inferior,” the people labeled “mentally retarded” were seen as evolutionary throwbacks, as evidence of “racial degeneration” as Down (1990) put it, labeling his patients who had Down’s syndrome as “Mongols.” Their treatment was as inhuman as the treatment meted out to native inhabitants of Australia or Africa who were seen to embody “the living stone age.”


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