Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

"Bad Things": Child Abuse and the Nineteenth-Century Spanish National School for the Deaf and Blind

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

"Bad Things": Child Abuse and the Nineteenth-Century Spanish National School for the Deaf and Blind

Article excerpt

SCHOLARS OF DEAF HISTORY regularly extol the virtues of residential deaf schools.1 These were the places where deaf youngsters made deaf friends and met deaf role models, often for the first time. There they learned their natural language and became immersed in Deaf culture.2 Something similar could be said of the schools for blind children, which afforded blind girls and boys an education and introduced them to the special culture of blind people.1

All of this is true, but it is not the whole story. Residential schools for deaf and blind students (the two groups were often housed together) were also sites of child abuse.

We are faced, then, with something of a paradox: How could the institution that so greatly benefited deaf and blind students also expose them to such potentially great harm? Contemporary insights from the fields of psychology, sociology, and social welfare may shed some light on the subject.4 Recent research suggests that both disability and the residential setting constitute risk factors for abuse, and children with communicative difficulties face additional perils.' Deaf children in particular are at greater risk of physical and sexual abuse than ordinary children, and more so if they attend residential schools.1' Blind children too are believed to experience high rates of physical and sexual abuse.7

With such information in mind, this article analyzes the characteristics of the nineteenth-century Spanish national school for deaf and blind children, its staff, and its students and shows how these characteristics colluded to create an environment conducive to abuse. Within this framework, the article also examines hitherto unpublished accusations of sexual molestation that involved an eminent educator of deaf and blind children, an incident with all the elements of a textbook case of abuse. The analysis provided here explores what has been until now a taboo topic, namely, the nineteenth-century deaf and blind residential school as a potential spawning ground of child abuse. In so doing it deepens our understanding of the dynamics of the Spanish national school and ot residential schools m general and thus supplies a crucial missing piece to the mosaic of Deaf and Blind history.

Historical Background

Spain's first state-sponsored deaf school opened in Madrid in 1805, under the auspices of the Royal Economic Society of Friends of the Country and with the backing of the Spanish crown.s Known originally as the Royal School for Deaf-mutes, in 1852 its name was changed to the National School for the Deaf and Blind (the first blind students had been officially admitted a decade earlier). From the school's earliest days, there were instances of maltreatment of pupils housed and educated there, and in previous studies I have detailed various episodes of physical abuse.'1 For obvious reasons, however, it is not possible to say just how many abusive acts were committed against students during the nineteenth century. Underreporting, cover-ups, and the loss or deliberate destruction of crucial documents hamper our knowledge of these matters, and existing accounts may be merely the tip of the iceberg.

Theoretical Framework

Types of Abuse

Abuse that takes place in institutional settings can be classified as individual abuse, program or sanctioned abuse, and system abuse. At the Madrid school for deaf and blind children, all three types occurred throughout the 1800s.

Individual abuse-acts perpetrated by an individual or by individuals-may be of a physical, emotional, or sexual nature. Research suggests that such abuse cannot be understood as merely the act of a particular deviant staff member or members; instead, it must be viewed within the larger context that gave rise to it. Individuals who abuse are surely culpable, but the "honey pot" conceptualization, in which a bully or predator is drawn to the school like a bee to a honey pot, does not suffice to explain the phenomenon. …

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