Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of
Deaf People as Disabled
The testing of human intelligence dates essentially from the 1860s when the founder of the eugenics movement, Sir Francis Galton, attempted to develop intelligence tests to correlate intelligence with other aspects of an individual’s behavior. By the late-nineteenth century, people were experimenting with a wide range of physical and intellectual tests, and in 1905, the French psychologists Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon produced tests to measure intellectual capacity (Binet and Simon 1905). Although Binet had developed his tests to identify “the retarded” to support the development of special schooling that would help those who, for whatever reason, performed poorly intellectually, his tests were soon oriented toward not only help but also segregation and oppression.
In America, Goddard, whose work had widespread influence throughout the English speaking world, used the tests to overtly eugenic ends: to prevent the entry into America of migrants judged mentally defective on the basis of IQ tests. He biased testing culturally and linguistically and manipulated IQ scales to ensure that subjects were judged “moronic” and thus undesirable in an effort to support his conviction that certain ethnic groups were mentally inferior. Goddard was the one who divided the mentally defective into “idiots,” “imbeciles,” and “morons”; who ranged mental types along a unilinear scale that was overtly related to the linear evolutionary scales of races and social types of evolutionary anthropology; who linked mental performance to “moral fiber,” assuming all criminals, prostitutes, and so forth to be “morons”; and who rationalized class differences as the result of hereditary difference in mental capacity, even doctoring photographs of mountain families to make them look sinister to support his views (see Gould 1984, 171).
In Goddard’s hands, the clinical gaze reached new heights of fortune-telling brilliance as his assistants picked out the feebleminded on sight at the wharves. Although Goddard recanted to some degree in 1928, declaring that “feeble-mindedness (the moron) is not incurable . . . [, and] . . . the feeble-minded do not generally need to be segregated in institutions” (quoted in Gould 1984, 174; Goddard’s italics), the damage had been done. The mania for testing was infectious; the need for the middle classes to rationalize and assert their superiority in an individualized competitive environment was uppermost ideologically. Mental capacity was assumed to be a measure of personal worth.
Language abilities were central to effective performance on tests. So, for example, “idiots” were characterized as those who “could not develop full speech” (Gould 1984, 158). Not surprisingly, the word “dumb” became synonymous with stupidity. People who were deaf did not stand a chance. In many cases, deaf children and adults were not actually identified as deaf but were assumed to lack spoken language because they were “idiots.” As idiots, they were assumed to be “ineducable” and were shut away in homes for the “mentally defective.” Decades later, when these homes were closed down in an era of deinstitutionalization, adults emerged who were in no way “mentally defective” but only deaf. Amy (a pseudonym) now lives at a nursing home for the deaf in Melbourne, Australia. She is in her sixties. Until a few years ago, she lived at Kew Cottages, an asylum for the “mentally retarded.” She had lived there virtually all her life because, as a child, she had been judged incapable of even doing an IQ test, diagnosed as “severely mentally retarded.” She had never had her own bedroom. She had never communicated coherently with anyone. She had no language.
In Melbourne in the 1920s, Porteus enthusiastically embraced the use of the Goddard tests and then the equally biased Stanford Revision of the Binet Scale by Terman (see Gould 1984) before developing his own “now internationally famous Porteus Maze Test” (Lewis 1983, 34). The clinical gaze was now informed by and, even more, legitimized by rampant testing that was assumed to be objective and infallible, testing that was claimed to reveal stable, genetically based levels of intelligence. “The abnormal” were removed first and foremost because they hampered the education of “the normal” and to reduce, by means of training, their disturbing influence on society as adults.