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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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Formal Education as a Disabling Process

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, formal education emerges as possibly the most important agent of normalization in the West. The schools, shaped by the forces of professionalization and bureaucratization, with their cultural substance formed by the eugenics movement and developments in medicine and psychology, became the prime sites for the identification and treatment of disabilities.

The atmosphere that existed just before the First World War and before the introduction of IQ testing and in which children were deemed disabled by a clinical gaze is summed up in the following quotation from a report by the newly established medical inspectors in schools in the state of Victoria in Australia.[7] It became the basis for establishing the first “special school” in Victoria in 1912:

     [T]here is the first class—the hopeless idiot who will almost never be able to look after himself, but may be taught good manners and cleanly habits, and segregated in asylums so as not to be a nuisance both to himself and those about him. He further may be often rendered useful by teaching him some of the manual arts—farming, gardening, shoemaking, basket-weaving, etc. Into the asylum class tends to fall the epileptic . . . . The second main class is that of the child who is educable up to a certain point, and may, perhaps eventually be able to earn his living by manual labour . . . . These come to grief inevitably in the large classes of our primary school system. It is only by the organization of special classes where these children receive the personal attention of specially qualified teachers that the best results may be obtained . . . . The third class is made up of those who are merely dull, and whose attendance at a special school for a couple of years may bring them up to the age of standard again. These also will do little good in large classes where individual attention is practically out of the question. (quoted in Lewis 1983, 19)

The clinical gaze was diagnosing and classifying the children of Australia and, in the process, determining their futures and the roles they would play in the development of Australia’s human potential. Children who were caught in the pathological net were doomed by being denied a normal education.

These “feebleminded” students were characterized as “so much grit in the hub of the educational machine” (Lewis, 1983, 21), and though special schools were advocated in part on humanitarian grounds, with a degree of concern for the orientation of at least the “dull” toward the public labor market, the prime orientation was segregationist. In 1930, the English Board of Control referred to these “feebleminded” students as “tainted stock.” To people outside the special schools, the children inside were all of a kind—“subnormal,” “disabled,” “retarded.”

The main tool used in the classification and marginalization of “disabled” children was the introduction of psychological tests, particularly Goddard’s revision of the Binet Scale. These intelligence tests measured a child’s IQ and were soon in use throughout the Western world, catering to a general perceived need for standardized tests that would allow for the effective streaming of children in an age of compulsory schooling.[8]


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