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Disability, Schooling and the Artifacts of Colonialism

by Christopher Kliewer & Linda May Fitzgerald - 2001

Eloquent, empirical, and philosophic decrees have been put forth describing and demanding a fundamental democratization of American public education. The primary foci of these critiques have centered on race, class, and gender. All but absent from the multicultural, feminist, and critical studies of schooling are serious analyses of the subjugation experienced by students tagged with disability labels. No other culturally recognized group of students experiences a similar mass level of deterministic segregation, tracking, and systematic social devaluation. That calls for school democratization consistently ignore students with disabilities suggests to us a certain ambivalence on the part of progressive scholars toward the place of disability in a just and excellent school: "Perhaps at disability," so the logic must go, "we have encountered an essential need for separation." In this paper, we reject the essentialist notion of the need to exclude children with disabilities from the community of school. We trace the origin of disability segregation to the advent of Western colonialism, and demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between cultural and racial oppression and the oppression of people with disabilities. We end with an urgent argument to include disability issues within postcolonial educational frameworks.


As we enter the third millennium, a huge segment of America’s children construed as intellectually disabled continue to face harsh and delimiting educational segregation under the benevolent banner of so-called “best practices.” While a vast and growing body of empirical research demonstrates that full citizenship for students labeled with moderate to severe mental disabilities is constructed on the realization of full participation in school and community, the majority of children so-labeled are presented daily with remedial training programs and fixit teaching methodologies in environments that exist at the nethermost margins of the school (Kliewer, In effect, and by the very nature of the label, children are told, “You are a broken version of what we wish you to be, and we will attempt to fix you to whatever degree possible in basement workshops out of the way of the general household.”


We believe this attitude, that which upholds intellectual normality and disability as self-evident—one the ideal and the other in need of a cure—is a lasting vestige of a colonial ideology stretching back some five centuries to the end of the Middle Ages. Here we find the origins of Modernism, a universalist morality out of which oppressive hierarchies of human worth and mass systems of segregation developed (Charlton, 1998; Fanon, 1967; Freire, 1993). In this paper, we expose the colonial origin and pattern of treatment enacted internally on people with disabilities occurring in conjunction with the Western conquest of the Americas, of Africa, and up to the present. By contextualizing current professional disability practices in traditions of colonialism, we develop an urgent argument for educators and policy makers versed in multiculturalism and postcolonial frameworks to link their democratic efforts not only to issues of race, class, and gender, but to disability oppression in schools as well.


We in no way pretend to be historians. Rather, we are educators confronting a current, serious dilemma in the structure of the U.S. school system— one with roots stretching far into the past. As such, we admittedly trace broad themes in the temporal trajectories of human devaluation. While this results in an oversimplification of the tides of history, and leaves many stories unattended, it also is the first effort to present a coherent framework for the exploration of colonialist ideologies and moralities on which today’s delimiting notion of the reality of disability is constructed.




Our story begins in October of 1492. Christopher Columbus disembarked from his fleet of three well-stocked sailing vessels to set foot on a tiny, inhabited island, one in a string probably within the vicinity of the Bahamas. In his journal, Columbus acknowledged the native islanders to be “of good intelligence,” but added with ominous forbodence, “I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men and govern them as I please” (quoted in Axtell, 1987, p. 621). This was, as Sale (1990) suggests, the genesis of the Modern Age, that period characterized by a sense of rational knowledge uncovering universal Truth—driven by, and incrementally advancing the notion of Western culture as the universal ideal.


Columbus proceeded southward, deeper into the Caribbean, taking for Castile all islands encountered and naming the indigenous peoples Taino (now more commonly referred to as Arawaks). He established a base on present day Haiti and noted in his journal to Isabella and Ferdinand, “Lord pleasing, I will carry off six [Arawak people] at my departure to Your Highnesses, in order that they may learn to speak” (quoted in Sale, 1990, p. 97, emphasis added).


No worry to Columbus that the Arawaks spoke just fine. He was formulating a plan of conquest and was doctoring his initial impression of “good intelligence” to reflect a native peoples who, in their stupidity and cruelty, required the outside imposition of voice and civilized order. Hence, a theme emerged which has reverberated for 500 years: those who differ in either social or physical presence from members of the dominating culture can justifiably be devalued, dehumanized, and exploited as less-than-human beings. The notion of voice, and its lack, arises immediately.


Returning to Haiti in 1493, Columbus instituted a colonial order, the repartimiento system, based on enslavement, forced labor, forced sex, torture, segregation from opportunity, and murder. Slavery, of course, preceded Columbus. Columbus’s legacy is found in his establishment of a race-based system of transatlantic enslavement organized in scope beyond anything the world had ever seen. When the Haitian natives fell victim to the harsh conditions and European diseases, Columbus’s son turned, in 1505, to the peoples of Africa as a source of labor, thus instituting a massive slave trade in the opposite direction across the Atlantic (Crone, 1969; Loewen, 1995).


Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, enclaves of Europeans appeared along the east coast of what would come to be called North America. Like Columbus, the Europeans landing to the north initially characterized the native people as intelligent (Kupperman, 1980). Within a few years, however, they followed the Spanish lead, describing indigenous Americans to be “sloathful and idle, vitious, melancholy, and slovenly” (quoted in Kupperman, 1980, p. 188). In the 1620s, European colonists instituted a mass system of racebased slavery every bit as organized and brutal as the conquistadors’ repartimiento system further south.


As the emerging nation-states of Europe cast their shadows of imperialism outward, those in positions of authority were inspired to also peer inward, into the human variation of their own European peoples. This self-critique, occurring in conjunction with outward expansion, initiated a systematic internal colonialization that would shape the form and nature of Western conceptualizations of disability up to the present.




In pre-imperialist Europe, life for those whom today we might deem disabled was no utopia, but neither was it characterized by a ubiquitous effort to identify and control people construed to be defective. Historical analyses suggest a broad array of community responses to deviance. These ranged, based on moment and place, from overt brutality and exploitation to benevolence and acceptance. Certain Renaissance communities, for instance, practiced infanticide, lynching, and burning at the stake to rid themselves of burdensome individuals thought to be possessed by the devil (Scheerenberger, 1983). As cities grew in size, houses of detention and poor houses appeared, which effectively turned the mad, feeble, or chronically poor into inmates (Safford & Safford, 1996).


At the close of the Middle Ages, imposed embarkation, the act of driving away those deemed to be useless, was also instituted as a response to difference (Foucault, 1965). The creation of a wandering and seafaring population (i.e., the ship of fools) served, for the Renaissance communities themselves, a utilitarian function in that resources were no longer expended on people who did not shoulder the burden of production. But Foucault (1965) argues that this was of secondary consideration. Foremost, communities represented a parameter of civilization and reason in an otherwise dangerous, unknown, and unreasonable wilderness. People who deviated from community standards, the unreasonable and the mad, must, it was thought, find their actual home on some existential plane where madness is sanity, unreason is reason. Embarkation, though brutal, was the ultimate acknowledgment that context matters.


At the same time, numerous communities retained their members who deviated from cultural norms, often out of a deep commitment to one’s family or neighbors and from a sense of the individual’s intrinsic worth to the group (Gould, 1988; Scheer & Groce, 1988). At the end of the Middle Ages, however, with external European colonization and confinement gaining momentum, the contrasting medieval approaches to internal human variation, from brutality to benevolence, would soon collapse into a single “great confinement” (Foucault, 1965, p. 38).




Absolute control of one by another has, throughout time, required justification. Centuries before Europe encountered the Americas, Aristotle argued that certain segments of a population were, “by nature,” born slaves (Wilford, 1991, p. 191). In effect, he was extending downward the hierarchy of humanity developed by his teacher, Plato: rulers, auxiliaries, craftsmen, and now slaves (Gould, 1996). Humanism’s drive to uncover antiquity’s lost truths resulted, during the Renaissance, in an Aristotelian posthumous reemergence in popularity. It was in his logic of natural slavery that Columbus and others to follow found a justification for typologizing groups of external, followed by internal, people and enforcing an absolute subjugation on certain of them.


Pre-Columbian Europe had not yet established the idea of race or a racist hierarchy of human value (Wilford, 1991). Nor, for good reason, did Europe consider itself a distinct entity, culturally separated from the rest of the world. The Moors of Africa, after all, had initiated much of the knowledge emanating from the early Renaissance (Loewen, 1995). Generally, people residing on what would become Europe accepted that all of humankind descended from Adam and Eve, though certain groups had strayed from the path of redemption. In essence, a primary division of humanity was between Catholic and infidel.


The encounter with the Americas, however, raised troublesome theological questions. Here existed groups of people, so it appeared, who had not rejected the doctrines of Christianity; they simply had never been exposed to them. Could these people possibly be doomed to hell? An emerging rationalism would suggest not. Hence, given the infallibility of God’s written word, were they in fact fully human?


In 1510, John Major, a Scottish professor working in Paris, directly applied the notion of “natural slavery” to Native Americans (Wilford, 1991). The disparate peoples of Western Europe were now becoming, self-consciously, a unitary West: the us in the us against them, the civilized white in a surrounding world of savage colors. Race was not initially, nor subsequently, the color of one’s skin. Typologizing the array of human color was merely a convenient template of segmentation laid over a profound devaluation of peoples whose exploitation and control were necessary for European conquest. Race, in effect, was born a metaphor of one group’s supposed right to control another.


In this ascension of conquest we see attention turned inward as well. If the peoples of the Western powers were truly the reflection of God, how to explain the weak ones? the crippled, feeble, mad, and mute? As described in the following sections, theological and scientific developments in the European profile, those which supported colonialization and, in turn, were furthered by conquest, shaped both an explanation of, and response to, human variation.




Before the seemingly objective voice of science imposed itself as a rationale for the enslavement, confinement, and dehumanization of others, God’s word served as justification.


Through the 1400s, from the Mediterranean spreading northward was the Renaissance, the embodiment of the new tenets of humanism—not as an affront to God, but for the first time since Genesis, an encompassing argument of man (and only men) in His likeness. Initially, humanism would form a fragile bond with Catholicism to create “a transportable, proselytizing religion that rationalized conquest” (Loewen, 1995, p. 43). We see evidence of this in The Requirement, any one of several conversion decrees read by Spanish conquistadors (in Spanish) to encountered peoples throughout the West Indies and Central and South America beginning in the 1510s. If the native peoples did not immediately acquiesce and convert to Catholicism on hearing the statement (read, of course, in a foreign language), they relinquished any claim to freedom (Wilford, 1991).


With the Western mirror held then to the presumed face of God, humanism lent a moral imperative to the external and internal domination of those deemed to be inferior. This was, after all, the Word as instituted in the First Garden itself. The Florentine humanist Marsilio Ficino wrote in the early 1480s, “The immense magnificence of our soul may manifestly be seen from this: man will not be satisfied with the empire of this [known] world, if, having conquered this one, he learns that there remains another world which he has not yet subjugated.... Thus man wishes no superior and no equal and will not permit anything to be left out and excluded from his rule” (quoted in Sale, 1990, p. 38). Ficino’s man, of course, was an ablebodied male of both privileged and Western European origin.


A rift, however, was quickly building between the humanist notion of the individual in the image of God and the jealous papal hierarchy of a corrupt Catholic Church. The Church’s inability to formulate a sound explanation as to the humanness of the encountered people in the Americas was one of many factors that widened the schism (Loewen, 1995; Sale, 1990) and opened the way for Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in 1517. Some 40 years later, half the population of Europe would reject Catholicism and subscribe to any one of the emergent Reformational churches.


Fundamental to the Reformation was a rejection of the traditional means for passing Saint Peter at the gates of heaven. Though people could no longer buy or labor their way into God’s realm, the act of hard work itself took on new meaning. Whereas over the Middle Ages pride was considered the great earthly sin, the Reformation adjusted the hierarchy of trespasses: Idleness became the supreme affront to God’s order. Indeed, Sloth was the incarnation of absolute pride—the sense that one need not toil, yet would ultimately reap the rewards of heaven. John Calvin, for instance, berated his followers, “Does not reluctance to work mean trying beyond measure the power of God?” (quoted in Foucault, 1965, p. 56).


In its reorganization of the nature of sin, the Reformation influenced both Protestant and Catholic realms alike. While faith alone was now the Protestant path to redemption, hard work served as a manifestation of one’s acknowledgment of the absolute glory of God. This held ominous meaning both for those colonized and those in Europe who appeared not to bear the burden of a community’s labor.




Beginning with The Requirement (described previously), Christian interpretations of God in any of their multifaceted forms served as justification for the destruction of the lives and customs of people newly encountered on the path of European supremacy. For instance, the arrival of the pilgrims, their brand of Protestantism, and the subsequent colonizing, spelled doom for the already existing nations on what would become the North American continent.


The European conquest of the Americas by disease, guns, and economics resulted in the interpretation of Native Americans as less than human— creatures whom even God shunned and for whom the idea of self-determination did not apply (Kupperman, 1980). Hence, the colonists proceeded westward forcing from indigenous peoples their land, their labor, often their lives, as well as their religion, culture, customs, and ways. Justifying this ceaseless drive, the colonists consistently turned to the Bible. From Psalms 2:8, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee, the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession,” and from Romans 13:2, “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (as described in Zinn, 1980, p. 14).




As Europe stretched its imperialist tentacles across the globe, it reached inward as well. The emerging nation-states enacted internal laws of confinement, always under the auspices of Christian doctrine, to control their populations of insane, disabled, poor, and alcoholic; “a group,” Foucault (1965) writes, “that to our eyes is strangely mixed” (p. 45). But within the new reality instigated by Protestantism, this broad distinction made perfect sense. Here was an assortment who in unanimity reflected an affront to God’s perfection. Like their brethren of different colors in other parts of the world, this group’s very humanness was in question. They were, after all, Sloth and Folly incarnate.


In England, between 1563 and 1601, Parliament enacted a series of poor laws requiring that “houses of correction” be built, one to a county (Safford & Safford, 1996). In France, beginning in the early 1500s, under the king’s decree, municipalities began redistributing money, previously spent on leprosy institutions, to now build centers of confinement for the poor and crippled. These would develop into the infamous institutions of Paris with names like Salpetriere and Bicetre. In 1656, each of these separate French facilities was merged into a singular administrative entity, the Hospital General, also called the Grand Hospital of Paris (Braudel, 1979).


The 1656 edict establishing the Grand Hospital made clear its purpose: “to prevent mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorder” (quoted in Foucault, 1965, p. 47). Across Europe, in the Reformational wake affecting even the most ardently Catholic nations, those who could not work, and those who presumably chose not to, were incarcerated as the epitome of the ultimate trespass against God. The person confined was no longer expelled from, or supported within the community; rather, “he was taken in charge, at the expense of the nation but at the cost of his individual liberty. Between him and society, an implicit system of obligation was established: he had the right to be fed, but he must accept the physical and moral constraint of confinement” (Foucault, 1965, p. 48).


The physical and moral constraint of confinement, that which developed during this period of the Great Confinement, would remain over the next four centuries an indelible dimension of the lives of people with disabilities. While the underlying rationales have changed, the derivative subjugation and abrogation of individual liberty, in large part, has not.




Though colonialism was ultimately about economics, its multiple dimensions were cloaked in a Christian language of redemption. A single underlying assumption resulted in the human devaluation and control of particular external and internal peoples: Their social presence, contrasting with European established ideals, was a trespass against God. In effect, a chasm emerged. On the one side was a privileged location of reason and civilization. Membership was established on an individual’s cultural appearance, the ability to present one’s self as a reflection of Western normality. Across the gulf existed a set of subjugating practices including enslavement, forced labor, and absolute confinement. The spoken rationale for each was the same: Sloth and Folly incarnate. Had not those on the wrong side of the chasm proven themselves heathen in their own stupidity, brutality, and resistance to work? Soon the rational voice of science would merge with theology to further solidify and objectify the notion of difference as defect.


The chasm itself was bridged by a new bureaucratic order that allowed middle-managers to control in organized and efficient fashion vast economic and social ventures. The mercantile system, that which would become capitalism under the weight of gold pouring from the New World, led to social technologies which included, in conjunction with mechanical printing, such things as double-entry bookkeeping, bills of exchange, credit lines, and currency transfers (Loewen, 1995; Weatherford, 1988).


At the same time, with the diminished authority of Catholicism, municipalities turned to similar technologies as they took on responsibilities traditionally overseen by the church. A new bureaucracy of government was in development that helped shape the nature and commitments of the emerging nation-state, and which effectively and efficiently identified the mad and the crippled as social problems requiring containment apart from the community. Thus, a new industry emerged—one of confinement. And it, like slavery, became a matter of economics as entire communities came to rely on jobs provided by centers of incarceration (Foucault, 1965).




The Reformation’s vast, swift, and successful challenge to the absolute authority of the Catholic Church shook not only theology, but the very notion of reality itself (Sale, 1990). While the instigators of the Protestant movement were themselves a strict and authoritarian group, their questioning that which seemed unquestionable further instilled the age with a spirit of inquiry leading, ultimately, to the ascent of rationalism, “that form of which now goes by the name of science” (Sale, 1990, p. 39). As Comte would delineate some three centuries later, the theological and metaphysical frameworks for interpreting reality would slowly be displaced by an empiricism claiming objectivity in its approach to understanding the universe—what Comte would refer to as “positive knowledge” (for a critical description, see Schon, 1983).


While Columbus and other explorers made use of newly available technologies to search for earthly realms unknown then to Europeans (Kagan, Ozment, & Turner, 1983), mathematicians, astronomers, and philosophers sought to understand new worlds beyond earth (Smith, 1972). Bacon and Descartes, contemporaries of Galileo, were both instrumental in establishing and promulgating rationalism and the scientific method as seemingly objective approaches to discovering material knowledge. Their work served as an important foundation for those who would emerge in the 18th century to make up the Enlightenment, that Age of Reason in which European intellectuals sought to procure the wonders of science for human and cultural advancement.




In the interconnected ascent of rationalism with theological challenges to Catholicism, the notion of a harsh and threatening wilderness subsided. As Western culture conquered the seas, the lands, their inhabitants, and the very mysteries of the universe, the fear of the unknown diminished. The stretches between what was deemed civilization—geographic, cultural, or, indeed, individual— were no longer viewed as existential, otherworldly, evil incarnate; rather, they were challenges posed, locations to be civilized at whatever cost.


The chasm between the European ideal and those who appeared to be other than ideal took on rationalistic dimensions through the intellectual writings of the age. In Rousseau’s (176201979) Emile we see the rudiments of stage theory that would influence the developmental ideas of such educational giants as Pestalozzi, Froebel, Montessori, and Piaget. Rousseau’s fundamental argument suggested the unfolding of individuals according to laws of nature. Delineate, then, these laws and one is better able to provide a stimulating sensory and reflective environment for development. In this demarcation of growth, however, what of those who appear to stray from the science of natural unfolding? The notion of defectiveness (i.e., any difference separating one’s social presence from the European ideal including, for instance, skin color, cultural development, or intellectual development) would become a natural reality—a fact, in effect, speaking for itself.


In 1758, Linnaeus provided the first scientific definition of race. As described by Gould (1996), Linnaeus declared “Homo sapiens after (the African black) ‘is ruled by caprice’; Homo sapiens europaeus is ‘ruled by customs.’ ” Of African women, he wrote: “mammae lacantes prolixae—breasts lactate profusely. The men, he added, are indolent and anoint themselves with grease” (p. 66).


In this pre-Darwinian climate, a debate emerged between competing scientific explanations of human variation. Polygenesists argued that separate races were actually distinct species with the Bible accounting only for the creation of Caucasians (Gould, 1996). On the other side of the debate was a scientific approach to creation that better fit Genesis: Monogenism suggested all of humanity originated in perfection but had since degenerated into its present and multiple forms. Certain groups, most notably black Africans—but also Native Americans—were thought to have fallen further and faster than others. Degeneration as an anthropological theory was thought to empirically confirm biblical accounts of creation (Gelb, 1995).


Each side of the debate believed its science established a hierarchy of races. The naturalist and polygenesist Agassiz, for instance, based on measurements made by Morton, created a racial ladder of intellect and ability.  Morton, using leadshot, had filled skulls of different racial groups in order to measure cranial (thus, brain) capacity. According to Agassiz’s interpretation of the data, black Africans occupied the bottom rung of capacity, then Mongolians, American Indians, and on up to white Europeans at the pinnacle (Gould, 1996). In 1841, W. C. Taylor argued from a monogenistic perspective that races other than white Europeans had degenerate minds like “stagnant pools whose surface has never been moved, where the undisturbed waters grow putrid and corrupt, until they taint the air with a moral miasma” (quoted in Gelb, 1995, p. 2).


With the 1859 publication of Darwin’s treatise On the Origin of Species by the Means of Natural Selection (185901963), evolutionary theory influenced scientific-creationist sensibilities. The notion of degenerationism was inverted into recapitulation theories. In essence, scientists turned degenerationism on its head. The argument followed that each person recapitulated the entire evolutionary sequence of life on earth in his or her own individual development. Already in 1844, Chambers proposed that, “Our brain goes through the various stages of a fish’s, a reptile’s and a mammifier’s brain, and finally becomes human. There is more than this, for, after completing the animal transformation, it passes through the characters in which it appears, in the Negro, Malay, American, and Mongolian nations and finally is Caucasian” (Chambers, 184401890, p. 306). Recapitulation, under the tenets of evolution, maintained a strict value hierarchy of the races.




Though the Great Confinement effectively chained in singular mass a wide array of social burdens, certain medical efforts of the age were already distinguishing among paupers, drunks, prostitutes, the insane, and various disability types (Scheerenberger, 1983). Treatment, however, remained entangled. This changed most famously when the Grand Hospital’s physician-in-chief, Philipe Pinel, strode into the Bicetre in 1793 to strike the chains from the necks of those whom today we might label disabled and mentally ill.


Though widely hailed then and now as an advancement in moral, psychiatric, psychological, and educational treatment, Pinel’s action was less one of liberation than a mere reorganization of confinement. Pinel, in effect, medicalized the chasm between normality and defect (Foucault, 1965)—just as the same gulf between Europeans and people of color was being scientized. The practice of confinement did not so much change as did the argument for its existence: “It organized [the asylum],” Foucault writes, “as a nonreciprocal relation to the keeper (i.e., the doctor)—it organized it for the man of reason as an awareness of the Other, a therapeutic intervention” (Foucault, 1965, p. 247). Thus, segregation took on a new moral imperative: The professional—in this case the medical doctor— denied particular groupings of humans their right to self-determination under the scientific auspices of remediation and therapy for those now defined as medically pathological.


Pinel’s action fit into an ongoing positivistic effort to explain internal human differences. While polygenists were able to account for variation across races, degeneration theories more easily explained both external hierarchies and human variation within a single people. In 1857, the French physician Benedict Augustin Morel published a treatise on the “stigmata of degeneration” in which he argued that cretinism, a common congenital disability of the day, was the final manifestation of several generations of perverse living by a single family line. Each subsequent generation up to the cretin was more feeble than the preceding one demonstrating in empiricist and medical form of the wrath of God (Gelb, 1995; Pick, 1989).


With the advent of medicalized recapitulation theories in post-Darwinian human science, we see the emergence of a universal link between explanations of presumed inferior races and presumed inferior peoples within the Western European population. Nowhere is this more clear than in the work of the English physician Dr. J. Langdon Down (188701990).


In 1887, Down expounded on his original 1866 paper in which he described an “Ethnic Classification of Idiots.” He noted, “I was struck by the remarkable resemblance of feebleminded children to the various ethnic types of the human family” (p. 4). He proceeded then to identify white feebleminded children whose individual development had been biologically arrested at the so-called negroid, Malay, North American Indian, and Mongolian stages of evolutionary development—in that sequence.


Down’s work appeared just previous to the advent of the age of eugenics, the racist and handicappist science of better breeding. The term eugenics was coined in 1883 by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, himself an avid evolutionist and pioneer of statistical measurement (Trent, 1994). Galton was driven by a desire to prove the genetic inheritability, as well as measurability, of literally all characteristics, capacities, and behaviors associated with human beings. Eugenic science merged together social Darwinism, Mendelianbased genetics, statistics, and eventually psychometrics to purportedly demonstrate in objective, medical fashion the defectiveness of particular types of human beings (Gelb, 1995; Kliewer & Drake, 1998). Hence, eugenics solidified the presumed link of defectiveness between the feebleminded and races of people other than that of white Western Europeans.




The ascent of rationalism with its invocation of empiricism in the study of human beings lent, in most instances, scientific authority to Aristotle’s pronouncement of natural slavery. Now Western Europeans and their descendants had access to seemingly non-speculative, objective data in support of what could only be described as the need to subjugate the Other. Thus, colonialism, imperialism, and the absolute control of the construed defective, proceeded on the basis of scientific fact, often—interestingly—under the auspices of education.




Throughout the 19th century, and into the 20th century, we see the establishment of substandard systems of education across Africa and the Americas in which to contain and indoctrinate the children of the colonized Disability and Schooling 461.and presumed inferior peoples. Beginning in the latter half of the 1800s, Belgium, followed by other powers, began the “scramble for Africa” (Betts, 1966, p. vii). To retain control over the colonies, Europeans “needed Africans who had accepted colonial ideology and an inferior status in colonial society” (Zvobgo, 1994, p. 5). Thus, Europe turned to segregated schooling as a powerful force for domination.


European powers established a dual system of education in Africa: one, elite, for the children of the invaders and a second inferior system for the education of native children (Tignor, 1976). Initially, missionaries took responsibility for the education of black Africans. The children were commonly taught to revere without question European superiority, absolute submission to white rule, segregation of the races, and most important, hard work. School, as such, required black children to labor in the colonial fields under the pretense that agricultural work held a “Christianizing influence” (Tignor, 1976, p. 114).


Father Hartman, a founder of mission schools throughout Rhodesia, noted at the beginning of the of the 20th century, “We teach the natives religion and how to work but we do not teach them how to read and write. This is 50 years too soon” (quoted in Zvobgo, 1994, p. 18). In 1921, the colonial government in Zimbabwe enforced a policy of training natives in only “those industries that lend themselves to primitive hand methods rather than to progressive and highly productive machinery” (quoted in Zvobgo, 1994, p. 20).


In the United States, a similar inferior education was established for the descendants of Africans and for Native Americans. In fact, up to the end of the Civil War, slavery itself was widely considered to be an “appropriate education” for African Americans (Loewen, 1995, p. 144). Beginning in the 1880s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) joined forces with Christian missionaries to implement federal laws forcing all indigenous children to attend segregated boarding schools. These schools were designed explicitly to destroy Native American families and eradicate their nations’ traditions. The schools were characterized by extreme brutality, malnourishment, and disease. As in Africa’s mission schools, the curriculum looked suspiciously like slave labor: “Every aspect of the of school life was regulated so that for the children their schools came to be prison” (Dinnerstein, Nichols, & Reimers, 1979, p. 229).




As with education for externally devalued peoples, schooling for a certain few individuals with disabilities emerged from the age of reason as a paternalistically cloaked, segregated effort to teach menial labor skills (Ferguson, 462 Teachers College Record.1994). Samuel Gridley Howe, an early leader in the movement to build residential schools for the feebleminded (nomenclature for intellectual disabilities), spoke before the 1848 Massachusetts legislator, asking, “Shall our Commonwealth continue to bury the humble talent of lowly children committed to her motherly care, and let it rot in the earth, or shall she do all that can be done, to render it back with usury to Him who let it?” Howe responded, “The humanity and justice of our rulers will prompt them to take immediate measures for the formation of a school or schools for the instruction and training of idiots” (Howe, 1848, as quoted in Wolfensberger, 1974, p. 36).


Howe’s status as a medical doctor is no coincidence. While common-school education in general was not considered a medical mission, by the mid1800s the profession of medicine was firmly entrenched as the single legitimate source for knowledge and action on disability. In organizations such as the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and FeebleMinded Persons (founded, 1876), doctors steered the creation of residential schools for the expressed purpose of training in menial labor and agrarian skills “simple idiots” (Trent, 1994, p. 68). Explained Walter Fernald (1915), who became superintendent of the Massachusetts School for the Feebleminded in the early 1880s, “The biological, economic, and sociological bearings of feeblemindedness have overshadowed the fact that it is fundamentally and essentially a medical question” (p. 96).


Administrators in these early training programs focused their efforts on “curing” to whatever degree possible the pathologies of only the so-called highest functioning feebleminded individuals (Seguin, 190701866). Their goal was to instill useful skills in the students and return them to the wider community. However, following the Civil War, and in the midst of a lingering 1870s economic depression, communities grew increasingly hostile toward the drain on resources imposed by state schools (Trent, 1994). Residential schools, giving up most any pretense to efforts of remediation, became ever larger locations of physical and moral confinement—in essence, custodial warehouses. The rise of eugenic science quickly became a positivistic rationale for warehousing the defective. To “prevent the birth of more feebleminded” (Goddard, 1914, p. 558), the eugenicists advocated for the incarceration of every feebleminded person on American soil. Goddard, Director of the Research Laboratory of the Training School at Vineland, N.J., for Feebleminded Girls and Boys, noted:


The feebleminded person is not desirable, he is a social encumbrance, often a burden to himself. In short it were better both for him and for society had he never been born. Should we not then, in our attempt to improve the race, begin by preventing the birth of more feebleminded? (Goddard, 1914, p. 558).


State governments and private foundations, however, could in no way build enough institutions to keep up with the large numbers of people psychometricians identified as defective. In 1917, Goddard claimed that 50 percent of the immigrants entering the United States through Ellis Island were mentally defective and in need of institutionalization (Trent, 1994).In light of this, eugenicists turned to the public school system as an ally in controlling the newly defined menaces to society.


Special education emerged in the climate of eugenics as a segregated public school response to the first psychometrically identified group of disabled students, the morons—children whose appearance was normal but who tested below average on intelligence assessments. In 1900, in the Journal of PsychoAsthenics, Esten argued that “backward children in the public schools” required training in separate classrooms because they were “weak in will power, deficient in reasoning power and judgment, hence, easily influenced by evil” (Esten, 1900, p. 13).


The prevailing morality viewed segregated education as a “clearing house” (Boehme, 1909–1910, p. 84) for defective children destined for an adulthood spent in the state institutions. In self-contained classrooms apart from the general school, so-called morons, primarily children of recent immigrants and of the poor, were controlled through a curriculum designed to teach them work skills that would be useful when, as adults, they were institutionalized. Students with more severe disabilities were excluded from public schools. Their care came either from their families or from the morons forced to labor in the custodial warehouses. Special education as a means was designed to lead to forced labor and absolute confinement as an end.




In Africa and the Americas, 20th century industrialization required an increasingly skilled workforce. White capitalists on the African continent, lacking in numbers of white workers, demanded that black Africans be educated to fill skilled factory positions in order to expand profits. In turn, unions of African workers organized to demand a voice in the political power structure. The first Pan-African Congress convened in Paris in 1919 and from which the slogan, “Africa for Africans,” emerged (Neuberger, 1986). Universal education emerged as a primary demand. In response, white governments opened European-styled educational opportunities for an extremely limited number of handpicked black Africans. “Education,” Zvobgo (1994) writes, “was one area in which the state felt it could make concessions to create a loyal African elite without improving wages and conditions for the mass of the workers” (p. 34).


The few newly created schools functioned to mold an indoctrinated black elite who could take the reins of political power in response to demands for self-determination. The new leadership would, it was hoped, continue to work in collaboration with, and under the control of, imperialist nations. A separate insidious dimension of the schools injected a Western sense of social and economic advancement as an individual effort rather than a process of mass mobilization (Zvobgo, 1994). By pointing to those few blacks who succeeded according to white norms, the argument was made that the system was equitable so long as the individual was competent. “Decolonialization brings not development,” writes Gordon (1986), “but the continued deepening of underdevelopment. The African ‘new class’ replaces the colonialists as the key actor in the process. This class’s ideology is but a cover for the continuity of neocolonial oppression” (p. 6).


On American soil, the colonial vestiges of slavery and oppression stumbled with savagery into 20th century America. It was not until the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, Supreme Court ruling that racial school segregation was successfully challenged. In his argument before the Court, the plaintiffs’ attorney, Thurgood Marshall, stressed that devalued groups had never been consulted as to their feelings about segregation—rather, apartheid and its consequential abrogation of individual liberty and self-determination was imposed from above.


To continue supporting legalized school segregation, Marshall argued, was akin to “an inherent determination that the people who were formerly in slavery, regardless of anything else, shall be kept as near that stage as possible” (quoted in Kluger, 1976, p. 674). The Court agreed and the slow dismantling of legal segregation for black, Asian, and Native American students began—with, however, well-documented manifest and latent resistance.




As was the case for others who experienced a history of colonial oppression, educational opportunities for people with disabilities did expand over the course of the 20th century. In this expansion however, the pattern of neocolonialism once again emerges. Initially, it was upper-class parents of people with disabilities who instigated an organized revolt against the professions charged with controlling menaces to democracy (Kliewer & Drake, 1998). Rather than accepting the hopelessness of custodial warehouses, parents began to organize schools for their children whom society shunned. By 1955, the national parent organization Parents and Friends of Mentally Retarded Children (later, the Arc), through local member groups, operated over a thousand educational services for children with disabilities (Scheerenberger, 1983).


The schools and classes represented what parents described as “a need to challenge the validity of the finality in the words, ‘Nothing can be done for your child’ ” (Hay, 1952, p. 1). While these early schools expanded educa Disability and Schooling 465.tional opportunities for children with disabilities, their organizers also left high numbers of youth out. Poor children and children with particular disability types remained excluded. For instance, the chromosomal anomaly commonly referred to as Down syndrome was considered to be such a horrific condition that children so-labeled, even of wealthy parents, struggled to access the parent-created classes (Kliewer, 1998).


Only after parents demonstrated the effectiveness of schooling in the lives of children with severe disabilities did the professions move in to take over such ventures. In this professional cooptation, we see the mass implementation of operant conditioning as both the scientific instructional mode of choice and a new form of dehumanization, intellectual confinement, and absolute control (Kliewer, 1998). Skinnerian behaviorism as applied to human beings discounted the individual’s self-reflectivity and self-consciousness. Rather, its focus was on shaping operants toward professionally determined ends. Because behavior modification developed in laboratories using pigeons, cats, and rats, the behaviorist’s classroom was made to look like the sterile and controlled environments from which it emerged (Sobsey & Dreimanis, 1993). These restrictive environments required that there be further restrictive environments into which the students transitioned.


While at the same time science and policy reified the apparent logic of segregated school programs for students with disabilities (e.g., Johnson & Kirk, 1958), parents began to question the exclusionary practices. In 1975, spurred by approximately 30 parent-initiated court victories against the field’s dominant version of special education (e.g., Mills vs. Board of Education, 1972; PARC vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 1972), Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94–141, reauthorized in 199001997 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]). The law mandated that schools implement procedures “to assure that to the maximum extent appropriate, handicapped children . . . are educated with children who are not handicapped.”


While the spirit of the law clearly tilted toward an end to segregation, the bill’s regulations allowed for the maintenance of a continuum of increasingly restrictive tracks in which to contain labeled children apart from the school community. “This,” Biklen (1992) writes, “is civil rights with escape clauses” (p. 85). The consequences have resulted in educational segregation remaining firmly entrenched as “the rule of the land” for students with so-called intellectual disabilities (Davis, 1995, p. 3). William Rhodes (1995) has suggested that “the law itself assumed that the ideology of pathology was the only way to read the reality of the lives of children with disabilities” (p. 459). He argues that the continuation of segregated special education exists as a “subsystem of the school community set aside for differences, for separateness, for children treated as Other than ourselves. They are outsiders” (p. 459).




The colonial mentality dialectically emerged in the genesis of the Modem Age. It sparked the systematic oppression of internal people with disabilities and fused their dehumanization with that of external peoples. Most current educational scholarship critically exposing cultural oppression and theorizing a more democratic system of schooling has omitted issues of disability. Inadvertently or not, this absence insinuates that the oppression experienced by people with disabilities is somehow distinct from that of other subjugated peoples and is, perhaps, intrinsic to the nature of disability itself.


Both conclusions lack a basis in anything other than myths, stereotypes, and prejudices that surround disability. In this paper we have traced the symbiotic subjugation of people with disabilities and others who strayed in social appearance from the Western ideal. In doing so, we make an urgent appeal to include analyses of disability oppression in postcolonial education frameworks.


We use the term postcolonial to evoke a sense of new cultural orders disengaged from the traditional value hierarchies that reduce particular peoples to the status of defective and economically dependent (Fanon, 1967; Neuberger, 1986). To achieve such a mutiny of history, to move past mere decolonialization, those who have continued to experience the effects of colonial subjugation must themselves enter the dialectic on which communities and, indeed, cultures are negotiated and constantly reformulated. When one is shunned from the conversation on who and what is communally valued, it is impossible to negotiate an image of rightful participation in that community (Freire, 1993). Charlton (1998), in his powerful manifesto on disability rights, noted:


Whenever I consider the raised consciousness of my friends and comrades with disabilities, I know we, a relative few, have been liberated from a terrible weight of history. I am constantly reminded of just how close we are to so many others, just like us, forcibly, oppressively locked in the past. The future never arrives, but the past can be slowly extinguished. The old antiquated ideas and categories will some day vanish. (p. 164)


Further, we implore progressive scholars and educators to both seek out the voices of people with disabilities and include people with disabilities in the movement towards educational democratization. From within the disability community itself, strong critiques against the oppressive notion of the intrinsic need for segregation are emerging. For instance, Sue Rubin, who spent much of her life labeled by psychologists as having an IQ of 24, and who now types to communicate, linked her efforts in the disability rights movement to the social justice work of Cesar Chavez. She writes, “Chavez’ struggle taught me how advocates must speak out against injustices and do something about them. He also knew there is strength in numbers and spent his life uniting people” (Rubin, 1995, p. B5:1). Rubin is joined in her fight for justice by others with disabilities and their allies. They are laying out a theoretical framework demonstrating that one’s subjugation is not intrinsically necessary but is culturally constructed on the social and economic terrain originally controlled by the oppressor.[1]





[1] See for example Charlton, 1998; Golfus, 1994; Kliewer, 1998; Mairs, 1996; Thompson, 1997. While in this paper we have demarcated the colonial link between oppression of people with disabilities and other devalued peoples, each of these works examines the reification of the notion of the intrinsic need to segregate people with disabilities. Each provides examples of resistance as well.




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CHRISTOPHER KLIEWER is associate professor of special education, University of Northern Iowa. He is an advocate for disability rights and promotes the full participation of all students in inclusive education.


LINDA MAY FITZGERALD is associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Northern Iowa and research fellow in the Regent’s Center for Early Developmental Education. She is coauthor, with Alison Clarke-Stewart and Chris Gruber, of Children at Home and in Day Care (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994).


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 103 Number 3, 2001, p. 450-470
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10764, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 9:30:50 AM

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  • Christopher Kliewer
    University of Northern Iowa
    E-mail Author
    Christopher Kliewer is associate professor of special education, University of Northern Iowa. He is an advocate for disability rights and promotes the full participation of all students in inclusive education.
  • Linda Fitzgerald
    University of Northern Iowa
    E-mail Author
    Linda May Fitzgerald is associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Northern Iowa and research fellow in the Regentís Center for Early Developmental Education. She is co-author, with Alison Clarke-Stewart and Chris Gruber, of Children at Home and in Day Care (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994).
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