A History of Children and Disability

reviewed by Robert Rueda - 1997

coverTitle: A History of Children and Disability
Author(s): Elizabeth J. Safford, Phillip J. Safford
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807734853, Pages: , Year: 1996
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In reading this book, several things are clear. First, the context of exceptionality has radically changed over time. As the authors note, this is suggested by the shift in language we use to talk about exceptionality-witness the title of current legislation, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, compared with the 1886 Idiot's Act. Second, almost all of the current issues regarding society's treatment of children and adults with disabilities, and indeed many of the proposed solutions, have a historical precedent. Finally, in spite of changes about how we label and talk about exceptionality, it is clear that as a society, we still do not have wide consensus about how to deal with it. The issue is further clouded when disabilities are considered in the context of poverty as well a language and cultural differences such as those found among ethnic minority communities and among communities of recently arrived immigrants. In the context of the United States, this is best captured in a quote of Barkley (1990), cited by the authors: "In a society founded on egalitarian and an economic meritocracy . . . [such} deficiencies in behavioral self-regulation arise early in childhood . . . are amplified by conditions of social disadvantage; and predispose afflicted individuals to a high risk of educational, social, and occupational underachievement" (p. 38).

This book is very timely, given the salience of current debates about the nature and economics of care in the areas of education, health, mental health, and even housing. The lack of consensus regarding how to deal with these controversial issues is reflected in the divergence of opinion in debates over changes in the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, one of the major pieces of federal legislation governing the education of children with disabilities. It is reflected in current debates over the inclusion of students with disabilities in regular educational settings, in debates about the placement of residential-care facilities in suburban neighborhoods, in debates about the treatment of babies born to mothers addicted to crack, in debates about the heritability of IQ, in debates about the provision of mental health services to the homeless (who are increasingly comprised of families and children rather than single men).

What is the contribution of the current volume? It represents a massive undertaking indeed, tracing the conception and treatment of persons with diverse handicaps from a historical perspective but taking into account geographical, cultural, religious, and political factors as well. The fact that it deals with a range of conditions both distinguishes it from other historical accounts and provides the reader an interesting comparative view of the sometimes merging and sometimes divergent courses of historical development for difference conditions. The authors' view that categories of exceptionality are socially constructed and arbitrary provides a foundation for tracing various themes that can be said to characterize the history of those categories over time. A positive feature of this book is the focus on children and the inclusion of the voices of persons with disabilities where such records existed, although the authors note that more often the history of disability has been the history of the service providers.

The book is organized roughly into three areas. The first is found in the first three chapters, and includes setting the general context for the remaining chapters and tracing a number of themes that run through the historical record. The explication of these themes is helpful in pulling together the relationships among disability and the other important factors that have been prominent in its treatment at a given point in time and place-cultural practices, religion, politics, economic conditions, educational and social philosophies, and so forth. These chapters comprise a bit less than a third of the entire volume, but are packed with information and are useful in making sense of the very detailed and comprehensive historical accounts in the following chapters.

The second section, the bulk of the book, is comprised of Chapters 4 through 9, and these chapters provide a historical record of the various categories of exceptionality. This is dense reading, but it is enlivened by accounts of the personal views, conflicts, motivations, successes, and failures of various actors where they are available. One cannot help but be impressed by the massive undertaking of compiling this account, and making it rational and comprehensible, especially in light of the sometimes obscure sources.

The final section is brief, and comprised of the last chapter. In these final pages, the authors consider how "the lessons of history can inform policy and practice concerning children a society considers exceptional" (p. 285). An underlying theme is, as the authors state, "what a society considers 'handicapping,' in children as in adults, is in most instances symptomatic of social injustice, intolerance of diversity, or unimaginative or myopic use of resources-and thus preventable" (p. 285). The importance of this last point is illustrated by the fact that more than half the incidence of childhood disability worldwide is estimated to result from malnutrition, viral and bacterial infections, and communicable disease (Marfo, 1986, cited in text p. 286).

In this last chapter, the authors close the circle by discussing more recent developments in this century, including the massive legal changes that were drafted and the precedents that were established, for example FAPE, or Free Appropriate Public Education, the merging of concerns of persons with disabilities with the civil rights movement, and so forth. The final pages suggest an intriguing speculation regarding the possible impact of constructivism and interpretivism on the future history that might be told, one that would be truer to the voice and concerns of those with disabilities. Indeed, a significant trend in this century has been the increasing voice and activism of persons with disabilities themselves. Whether this will help deal with the complex issues surrounding society's interactions with persons with disabilities in complex social settings remains to be seen.

This book represents a valuable contribution to those interested in the historical aspects of disability, whether they be persons with disabilities, parents, researchers, policymakers, teachers, or other service providers. As noted earlier, many of the pedagogical, ethical, legal, and moral issues we confront at the present point in history are not new, and there is something to be learned from how earlier travelers conceptualized and tried to resolve the same issues. At the same time, it provides a useful perspective on the entire question of disability, especially in a context in which specialization is increasingly practiced and in which it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and associated issues.

If there is one criticism of this well-written and comprehensive book, it is that the book ends leaving one wishing for more. In a sense, the "sandwich" encompassing the central chapters is uneven. The first three chapters provide the foreground for the ensuing core chapters, but the last chapter, which wraps up that core, seems too brief and without the same level of analysis and comprehensiveness found in the first three chapters. Ideally, this section of the book would be expanded and might provide a more extensive link to current and possibly future concerns.

Some might argue with the fairly traditional "categorical" approach to the central chapters, but in a sense this is justified by the fact that history seems to have treated disability in this fashion. In recounting the historical record, care must be taken not to superimpose current views about those with disabilities on those of persons at other times and in other places.

As noted, this book would be appropriate for a wide range of persons with an interest in disabilities. For a course with a specific focus on history in this area, this book would be a logical choice. It would also make an excellent supplemental or reference text for courses in education, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other areas with a focus on disability. The level of detail and comprehensiveness would probably be overwhelming as a primary text, however, unless the focus was primarily historical. Overall, the text represents a useful contribution to the literature; it is well written, and should be a valuable addition to the library of a wide variety of readers.


Barkley, R. A. (1990). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A handbook for diagnosis and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.

Marfo, K. (1986). Confronting childhood disability in developing countries. New York: Praeger.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 99 Number 1, 1997, p. 213-216
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10268, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:12:15 PM

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