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Damned for Their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled

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But the segregation of “the abnormal” was not by any means motivated only by fear and by a concern with effective segregation. Humanitarian concerns were also important and, indeed, featured prominently in ideological justifications for segregated special education. The disabling effects of the process were rarely, if ever, expressed and understood. The tension between humanitarian and eugenicist motives was strong and explicit. The fear that “defectives” might proliferate as a result of their “humanitarian treatment” and associated rehabilitation remained strong.[10] The contradictions inherent in an egalitarian, individualistic, competitive, ruthless, and essentially unequal society remained as stark as ever.

During the interwar period, the concentration was on providing facilities for the effective segregation of “the feebleminded,” a category encompassing a vast range of “conditions.” At this stage, treatment, training, and therapy were given little attention as far as those judged “ineducable” were concerned. Eugenic anxieties were still uppermost, particularly among the middle classes.

The Postwar Era: Therapy, “Normalization,” and Human Rights

In the period after the Second World War, theories and policies, though not necessarily practices, changed dramatically as the Age of Empire waned. Practices took some time to change, as is evident in Goffman’s description of asylum life in the late 1950s in America where he describes the asylum as a place of confinement rather than of treatment (Goffman 1961) and in Rosemary Crossley and Annie MacDonald’s description of conditions in “hospitals” for children who were severely disabled in Australia in the 1970s (Crossley and MacDonald 1979). But the excesses of Nazi Germany in the pursuit of eugenics had to be condemned outright rather than acknowledged as the extreme expression of a pervasive Western ideology.[11]

As the pendulum swung away from repressive segregation and back toward therapeutic treatment, toward more or less integration of “the disabled” into “normal” activities, and as it swung away from ineducability and toward training for living, the psychiatrists and medicos in general maintained their control over the lives of “the disabled.” “Special education” blossomed. As the pendulum swung back to another era of therapy, the scientifically trained professionals became more than simply diagnosticians and prescribers of drugs, surgery, and segregation; they also became integral contributors to the growing bureaucracy concerned with special education (Tomlinson 1982, 53). The increasing role of diagnostic professionals from the 1940s to 1970s in Britain is shown in the makeup of the committee formed in 1973 under Mary Warnock to review educational provisions “for handicapped children and young people”:

     The variety of professionals on this committee indicates the expansion of vested interests in the, by now, considerable field of special education. Administrators, doctors, psychologists, heads of special schools, social service directors, university professors, a retired NUT secretary, and a TUC secretary were represented on the committee. One parent of handicapped children was on the committee but she was also chairman of the education committee of the National Deaf Children’s Society. One head of an ordinary school was a member. (Tomlinson 1982, 55)

With the move to compulsory secondary education by means of the 1944 Education Act in Britain, the testing of pupils for effective categorization and streaming into different compartments of the educational system intensified. With respect to “the disabled,” the Act treated “‘pupils who suffer from any disability of the mind or body’ as a single group” (Kirp 1983, 79). Local education authorities were instructed “to ascertain who these children are, to determine their disability primarily through medical examination, and ‘to provide for the education of a pupil with a serious disability in an appropriate special school, or any other suitable school where this was impractical or the disability was not serious’” (79). But those children diagnosed as “uneducable mental defectives” remained the responsibility of the Health Service until 1970 when they were placed under the responsibility of local education authorities and were integrated into special education.


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