Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Disability History

Here's a great overview of disability history I found.
Recently I've been looking at developmental disability in the 1700-1800s. Google books has some of John Langdon Down's stuff and Edouard Seguin's stuff (both 1800s). That was really a fascinating time - special education was just beginning. John Langdon Down was a man I have a great deal of respect for - antiracist (he used disabled people as proof that nonwhites were human), very antisexist (he said it was 'lunacy' to deny women equal education to men) and an advocate for disabled people (he spoke out against isolation and denial of education to 'idiots').
Two things John Langdon Down is quite well known for - describing what he called Mongolism, now named after him, and coining the term 'idiot savant'. By the way, many people claim 'idiot' was a misnomer because savants don't generally have an IQ below 25, which is what 'idiot' meant. But that classification is from a later period - IQ tests weren't even invented when John Langdon Down coined that term. He used 'idiot' if they were mentally disabled from childhood, and 'imbecile' if their condition was adult-onset.
He divided idiots into congenital, accidental and developmental. The latter two categories are interesting. The accidental category looked normal, except that some had 'paralysis' (I suspect cerebral palsy). He attributed their condition to brain damage in infancy. His description of their behavior sounds a lot like autism - they were 'bright in their expression, often active in their movements, agile to a degree, mobile in their temperament, fearless as to danger, persevering in mischief, petulant to have their own way'. They did not speak, loved music, and were 'in a world of their own'. He described them as self-absorbed and engaging in repetitive movements. He said many people held more hope for them than for congenital idiots, but they were actually less educable.
The developmental category sound like a mix of regressive autism, Heller Syndrome and schizophrenia, these individuals developed normally until either the first dentition (later infancy), the second dentition (mid childhood) or puberty. He felt they were unusually prone to stress reactions at those times, and had a 'prow-shaped' skull. Those with onset at puberty were described as 'suspicious and reserved' and prone to making incorrect statements or phrasing them wrongly.
So anyway, here's some stuff about the history of developmental disabilities.
PS: I have just found the Disability History Museum.

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Blogger Julie said...

Hello, Abnormaldiversity. My name's Julie.

I found that site some time ago, and found it so facsinating that I read the whole thing in a couple of day. I still refer to it sometimes.

Anyway, it's nice to 'meet' you here in cyberworld.

7:41 PM  
Blogger Penny L. Richards said...

Since you're interested in the subject, I can send you a pdf of a 1998 journal article I co-wrote about educating a kid with developmental disabilities in the 1810s-1820s--based on his family's letters (and a few of his own). Just say the word.

8:57 PM  
Blogger shiva said...

Hmmm. Stuff i have read has treated Langdon Down as a notorious racist and responsible for the racist and disablist association of Down's syndrome with certain ethnicities. But, much like Hans Asperger, i'm sure there are conflicting views on him, and probably different interpretations of his views, particularly in the context of his time.

Something i'll have to look into (don't have time to read that whole site right now, but i'll bookmark it and have a proper look some time in the next couple of weeks)...

4:15 PM  
Blogger Ettina said...

The description of John Langdon Down as racist represents presentist bias (judging people in the past by modern standards).
In his time, there was serious scientific debate about whether non-white people were human. Being viewed as inferior humans is certainly an improvement on not being considered human at all.
I also wonder how much of that is an artifact of race becoming an accepted way to differ before disability does.
John Langdon Down did suggest you could classify congenitally developmentally disabled people by which racial group they most resembled, with 'Mongloids' being the largest group. He did this partly as evidence for his argument that non-white were humans (if white people can have kids like that, then it must not represent a different species) and partly because he felt identifying common features to certain groups of disabled people would improve education and such of those people, because different techniques would work better for different groups.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Terry Bu said...

Thanks Ettina, I'm an Asian, or of (Mongoloid)origin, and was looking into John Down's history. In the beginning, I was severely offended when I heard that he was first the man who linked Asian people to Down's Syndrome, a condition affiliated with almost 99% mental retardation. From that, I thought he was a racist - calling Asian people genetically inferior in mental capacity and physical appearance. But from his paper and what you've said, I've realized that he was simply making observations between some physical features of the Asian race being similar to those with Down's syndrome - epicanthic fold of the eyes and flatter noses. I've also heard that John Down was an advocate for equality (not just belief in the origin of all races coming from one source) in other areas such as education of women.

However, any use of the word "Mongoloid" to refer to Down's syndrome should be banned in this day and age. Just because a genetic condition makes the sufferers of Down's syndrome share some physical traits of Asian people's faces, it doesn't mean the word that's used to represent our race should be synonymous with the condition.

Whatever he was trying to say along the lines of "white people can look like Asians too if they suffer from Down's syndrome. Therefore, White people and Asian people aren't that different" is understandable yet can be interpreted as pejorative in so many ways.

I sure do hope that no sane person in this world would call somebody suffering from the black bubonic plague as "Negroid" or someone suffering from anemia as "Caucasoid".

3:34 PM  

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