The Politics of Activity: Emergence and Development of Educational Programs for People with Disabilities between 1750 and 1860

By Verstraete, Pieter | History of Education Review, January 2009 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Activity: Emergence and Development of Educational Programs for People with Disabilities between 1750 and 1860


Verstraete, Pieter, History of Education Review


From that moment on, a multitude of these individuals, who in the middle of all us seem to be death when compared to us, regain movement, action and life like we ourselves.

Abbe C.M. de l'Epee, 1776 (1)

Politics, activity and the history of disability

During the last two decennia 'disability' increasingly has been considered by various academic disciplines like sociology, literature, social sciences, geography and history as a fresh and innovative analytical category with the transformative potential of race, gender, class and sexuality. (2) At the heart of this development is a comprehensive transformation of what is understood by 'disability'. Traditionally, 'disability' was considered to be nothing more than an objective and invariable part of the human body. Nowadays 'disability' is primarily presented as the contingent result of the complex and manifold interactions between an individual's body and its surrounding multilayered reality. (3) This new meaning of 'disability' especially has been put forward by what has come to be known as Disability Studies. (4) At the heart of Disability Studies is a social-constructivist approach of 'disability' and a strict distinction between impairment and 'disability' like formulated by the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation in 1976:

   Impairment: Lacking part or all of a limb, or having a defective
   limb, organ, or mechanism of the body. Disability: The disadvantage
   or restriction of activity by a contemporary social organisation
   which takes no or little account of people who have physical
   impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social
   activities. (5)

Whereas for disability studies scholars 'impairment' is a mere part of the human body (or mind), 'disability' rather is a social-construct which results from the manifold interactions between cultural values, political structures, social institutions and professional practices. One of the most important goals of disability studies scholars precisely is the disentanglement or de-construction of these persistent and often discriminatory interactions.

The recent rise of inquiries into the history of disability cannot be dissociated from Disability Studies' intellectual program. The history of disability, just like cultural comparison, clearly is put forward as one possible way to reveal disability's relativity. To give just one example I refer here to the New Disability History of Longmore and Umansky (2001) whose intention it is 'to join the social-constructionists insights and interdisciplinarity of cultural studies with solid empirical research to analyse disability's past'. (6) In general three different stages are being discerned in the development of disability's historiography: besides the already mentioned cultural approach of disability history it is common to distinguish between a hagiographical and a historical-materialistic approach. (7) In our opinion, each of them can be characterised by the particular place that is being attributed to the activity of persons with disability in history. (8)

The first histories of disability commonly are described as celebratory and hagiographical accounts of pioneering professionals as well as famous persons with disabilities themselves like Louis Braille, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Helen Keller. These histories mainly reduce the past to a linear ascension of time and support the idea of a progressive science. In these historical reconstructions persons with disabilities mostly are denied any form of activity or if they are depicted as active subjects, this is primarily seen as the result of progress in science and technology. (9) From the seventies onwards these rather simplistic representations of disability's past increasingly became criticised by scholars trained in a Marxist tradition. (10) Applying the thesis of economical suppression and dominant classes they considered 'disability' an oppressive category which enabled the bourgeois class to relegate non-productive people to institutes, special schools and hospitals where they again could be made normal. …

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The Politics of Activity: Emergence and Development of Educational Programs for People with Disabilities between 1750 and 1860
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