What’s so “special”? – Disability segregation in education

By Catia Malaquias

Inclusive education is a human right of students with disability, to be appropriately supported and accommodated to learn together with their non-disabled peers in regular general education classrooms.

Its recent recognition under international law, including the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), has come with the concerted effort of people with disability, and their representative organisations.  It certainly didn’t come at the instigation of either the entrenched medical or educational systems of society – affected, as they still are, by the foundational ‘pseudo-science’ of segregated ‘special education’.

So what is the ‘science’ – the scientific theory – the scientific legacy – that underpins the enduring readiness of ‘special education’ and other ‘disability professionals’ to accept that segregating students with disability is beneficial, appropriate or even ‘natural’?

That ‘scientific’ legacy lies in the post-Darwinism eugenics movement – so influential in the late 1800s/early 1900s amongst the political, intellectual and economic elite, particularly in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.  In Australia, the eugenics movement was centred in Melbourne, Victoria and in the 1930s the members of the Eugenics Society of Victoria included the Chief Executive Officer of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (which became the CSIRO), the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, the President of the Royal College of Physicians and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

Based upon the theory of ‘natural selection’, the eugenics movement sought to influence government policy to contain, segregate and restrict the reproduction of the ‘undesirable’, the ‘feeble-minded’ and the ‘worthless’.

Segregation, institutionalisation and forced sterilisation of people with disability became the norm in western societies, while the policies of eugenics were adopted with added zeal by the German medical community under the Nazis and implemented as the ‘T4 program’ – the forced systematic euthanasia – murder – of over 300,000 people with disability. A test run for the broader Holocaust that was to come.

Segregated classrooms proliferated against the background of the developing eugenics movement, as compulsory education laws resulted in more ‘slow’ students entering general schooling.  But ‘slow’ did not mean intellectually disabled – in 1921 75% of children in New York’s special education system were of new immigrants, particularly from southern and eastern Europe, who struggled with adapting to the English language and American customs.

Children with significant intellectual and physical disabilities were initially excluded from segregated ‘special’ education for being assumed by ‘science’ to be ‘ineducable’. Their disability being connected by eugenics to the poor genetics of the ‘working class’ and paupers.

But parents of children with significant disability were beginning to question – and their questioning was resisted by the ‘science’ of eugenics.  The editorial commentary of the 1942 edition of the American Psychiatric Association journal, in noting the tension between ‘science’ and ‘fond parents’ – retreated behind the objectiveness of  the ‘scientific approach’:

“Scientists presumably have reached their conviction by more or less impersonal routes: the layman on the contrary who has the misfortune to be the parent of a low-grade defective is actuated by strong personal motives which he may or may not be capable of setting out clearly in his own consciousness.”

However, by the late 1940s, as the eugenics movement waned in the aftermath of its devastating implementation by the Nazis, middle and upper class Western families began to acknowledge their own disabled children and demand educational opportunity for them. The result was the begrudging broadening of the ‘invitation’ to segregated ‘special education’ to those children with disability who had previously been completely excluded.  But ‘special education’ approached the education of the ‘ineducable’ with repetitive behaviour conditioning in segregated classrooms reflective of ‘controlled laboratory environments’.

In 1949 the first selective behaviour conditioning experiment, effectively the precursor to modern Applied Behaviour Analysis, was performed on an 18 year old young man, a ‘vegetative human organism’, which required him to raise his right hand, after being denied food for 15 hours, to signal his desire to have sweetened milk injected into his mouth.  Over time, the research demonstrated increased right hand movements and recorded:

“While of normal human parentage, this organism was, behaviourally speaking, considerably lower in the scale than the majority of infra-human organisms used in conditioning experiments – dogs, rats, cats.   … Perhaps by beginning at the bottom of the human scale the transfer from rat to man can be effected.”

Faced with the diversity of disability, segregated ‘special education’ and the disability professionals that supported it, focussed their efforts on diagnosing – labelling – and sub-dividing children with disability into ‘treatment’ categories. The individual couldn’t be seen behind their life-long ‘deficit’ label.

Diagnosing – attaching labels of deficiency to children with disability – became a tool for ‘segregating’. Segregation into separate ‘special’ classrooms is about marking children as different from the ‘normal range of difference’.   It is by definition stigmatising of children in their own eyes and significantly in the eyes of their non-disabled peers and ultimately devaluing of their right to be included in society.  Deficit labels recalibrate – reduce – societal expectations for people with disability – and reduce expectations in the eyes of people with disability. The labels are prophetic.

With “controlled” segregated micro-environments and a focus on treating labels of ‘deficiency’, ‘special education’ classrooms (as with all forms of institutionalisation) lead to the same basic problem of lack of transferability and generalisation of the limited learning achieved to the outside world.  Segregation leads to further segregation – one restrictive setting leads to another – the institutionalisation ‘pipeline’ from cradle to grave.

 It is against this long background of ‘pseudo-science’ – of ‘special education’ learnings in segregated settings – that lead to the second wave of parental demand in the 1960s -1970s for the inclusion of their children with disability in general education settings. Importantly, this time, that wave included the long-denied voices of people with disability – advocates with disability and the disability rights movement – who demanded equality and inclusion in all aspects of society – culminating eventually in the CRPD, and recognition of the human right to inclusive education in general education settings.

I have referred to the ‘science’ of eugenics and segregation in inverted commas.  Because ultimately the eugenics movement – and its trappings of segregated ‘special education’ and institutionalisation – were never founded on a empirical or scientific footing. Rather, eugenics and its segregating responses to the ‘unworthy’ – the disabled – was always ideology cloaked in the language of ‘science’.  It was  about how some saw best to advance privilege and the privileged in our society and how to contain and control the ‘undesirable’.

However, the eugenic ‘science’ of segregation still courses in the veins and minds of our disability services, health and educational systems – in spite of and in defiance of the disability rights movement that demands equality for, and inclusion of ,people with disability in all aspects of society – including our general education classrooms.

The Darwinsitic underpinnings of segregated ‘special education’ may, to some extent, be legacies of history, but as  Martin Luther King said, speaking on segregation deployed on the basis of race:

“Old Man Segregation is on his deathbed.  But history has proven that social systems have a great last-minute breathing power, and the guardians of the status quo are always on hand with their oxygen tents to keep the old order alive.”

One guardian, still a long-standing and high profile ‘special education’ professor and critic of full inclusion, delivered in 1995 the keynote address at a convention for the Council for Exceptional Children in Indianapolis, defending disability segregation as ‘natural’:

“In subhuman social ecologies, the concept of ‘natural’ order also applies. Dominance, pecking order, flocking, schooling, and congregation into a closed group or segregation of individuals from the group are typically merely observed by scientists, not manipulated. Scientists worry that the very manipulation of subhuman social ecologies might upset the ecological balance. Another important aspect of subhuman ecologies is that the individual is not essential to ecological balance or to what is considered acceptable.  There are sacrificial lambs.  We do not want to prevent the fox from eating the mouse, nor do we want to prevent the harsh domination of one primate by another in its natural environment.  The individual’s life is expendable, and the individual’s social standing in the group is accepted, whether the individual is a despot or an outcast.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Darwinian theories of ‘natural’ order and biological inferiority have also underpinned pseudo-scientific ideology used against women in their efforts to gain civil, political and social rights, including the right to education on an equal basis – and influenced education policy to women’s detriment.  Gustave Le Bon, known as “the father of social science” asserted in his 1879 essay against equal access to education for women:

“This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion … A desire to give them the same education, and as a consequence to pose the same goals for them, is a dangerous chimera.”

The right to inclusive education for people with disability – to inclusion – embodies not only recognition of, but also respect for equality and for human diversity, not just as natural, but as valued.  Disability, as recognised by the CRPD and the human rights model of disability upon which it is predicated, is a legitimate part of human diversity, and all humans have the right to be included in and be part of the fabric of their communities.

Despite this, harmful ideologies in relation to disability and difference, the socio-cultural behaviours they drive and the systems constructed around them, continue to persist in education and more broadly, with significant and devastating effects.

Unless we as a society – parents, educators, policy makers and community members – are prepared to interrogate this history and confront the deployment of segregation against people with disability, even in the name of ‘care’, ‘support’ and ‘education’, then we will be complicit in the perpetuation of grave injustices and our efforts to end the marginalisation of people with disability will remain significantly compromised.

*Acknowledgment – Some content for this article has been sourced from:

Christopher Kliewer & Stephe Drake (1998). “Disability, Eugenics and the Current Ideology of Segregation: A modern moral tale”, Disability & Society, 13:1, 95-111

Lucinda S. Spaulding and Sharon M. Pratt. “A review and analysis of the history of special education and disability advocacy in the United States” American Educational History Journal Vol. 42 Iss. 1 & 2 (2015)

Ross L. Jones, “Eugenics in Australia: The secret of Melbourne’s elite”, The Conversation.

[Cover photo © Timo Kaiser]

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