Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

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Review by Carol Goldin, Email: csgoldin@gmail.com

Keywords: history; intellectual disability

A rich resource for Disability Studies, Those They Called Idiots is an engaging, multidisciplinary history of ideas. Peppered with anecdotes, fascinating vignettes, quotes, and illustrative materials the reader vividly sees how the development of beliefs about intellectual disabilities have been used to justify care and containment across 300 years. Few histories document the growth and decline of asylums for individuals whose intellectual behaviors/qualities, and capacities are different from majority norms (in contrast to the many studies of madness). And relatively few histories document life before the growth of these enclosed institutions in the 19th century. Written in an engaging style, this book has wide appeal; it is appropriate for undergraduate and graduate humanities and social science courses, especially in history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, education, and public policy. It should have a special place in curricula for prospective teachers, particularly for those interested in special education. 

Living in groups, we define ourselves in part by distinguishing “our group” from ‘‘the others” by foregrounding differences between “us” and “them.” Over the last 300 years, those whose mental capacities were defined as “less than” the norm have been variously tolerated, set apart, institutionalized, ostracized, or stigmatized. Over time the rationales, the philosophies, and the institutions have changed dramatically. 

“Idiocy” and similarly historically popular but ill-defined concepts, are not all references to those whom we would call “learning disabled” today. Individuals so labeled in the 18th and 19th centuries were more diverse, and might include those with learning differences, those with different intellectual strengths, those on the autism spectrum, those with a range of physical differences, etc. 

Simon Jarrett, historian and editor of the British magazine, Community Living is an ardent advocate for persons today referred to as “intellectually challenged.” Using primarily British sources for the early history and broader western sources for more recent history, Jarrett documents the treatment of individuals labeled “idiots” from about 1700 to the present. Divided into three historical sections:

1. Idiocy and Imbecility in the Eighteenth Century, c. 1700-1812

2. New Ways of Thinking, c. 1812-70 

3. From Eugenics to Care in the Community, c. 1870 to the Present Day 

The volume describes changes in attitudes, popular media, laws, philosophy, and theories about human behavior and abilities. Citing a rich array of primary references, the author chronicles changes in conceptions, education, social responsibility, and institutional control, as these cycle from community/family responsibility, through institutionalization in asylums, through deinstitutionalization, to contemporary self-advocacy/human rights issues. His book is well written, engrossing, and devoid of jargon.

The book opens In 18th century England, where individuals labeled “idiots” (or a host of other terms, such as imbeciles, simple minded, etc.) lived in the general community (with help from their families). In the 19th century with changes in economic structures and population movements, including the growth of cities and monetized labor, the state took on responsibilities for individuals deemed “unfit” to live on their own. Those needing “care” (increasingly recast in medical terms) were taken from their communities to live apart in asylums. These institutions were designed to control individuals variously considered uneducable and requiring care, including individuals who were blind, deaf, physically handicapped, emotionally unstable and/or cognitively different. Included in this category were those formerly referred to as “idiots” and today labeled “intellectually challenged, “mentally deficient,” or “learning disabled.” 

In the 19th century, as major political powers developed vast colonial enterprises, philosophers and scholars sought to explain the differences between their own societies and those they encountered. Observations became generalizations, often characterizing the “other” as irresponsible, slothful, unpredictable, and lacking interest in and commitment to western middle class values. These stereotypes served as intellectual justification for institutionalization. Stories of wildness, promiscuity, and resistance provided rationales for rounding up children, demolishing delicate ecosystems, and destroying social/political/economic systems under colonial rule. And as the author notes, notions of racial intelligence and naïve evolutionary concepts ultimately developed into sophisticated racialist theories that supported eugenics, sterilization, and euthanasia. As the author notes, the book “describes the bizarre entanglement of ideas of idiocy and imbecility with ideas of race and intelligence,” a process that “ended with the scientific racism of the mid-nineteenth century, and the highly racialized eugenic science of degeneration after Darwin. Idiocy moved from being something harmless, if a little odd, to a much darker idea of existential racial threat and danger.” (p.17)

The conflation of race and intelligence is vividly documented in this volume. The long and complex history of ideas that have bound these concepts together helps us understand today’s deeply institutionalized racism as well as the entrenched we/they ableism of our educational and social service institutions. These relationships are also explored in Jan Walmsley’s excellent recent review of the book.

Describing late 20th history, Jarrett expresses some optimism, citing deinstitutionalization and the transition in social science and education from a medical to a community model. However, as he notes, these changes spawned new challenges; struggles continue for better education, accommodations, civil rights, and voice in decision making. 

No matter how much is included, any history may be critiqued for what it does not contain. Interested readers may seek broader discussions of the impact of political and economic forces, particularly urbanization, wage labor, and colonialism. Jarrett’s “Selected Secondary Reading” list identifies some additional resources, including his own, recently co-edited volume. 

In the acknowledgements at the end of his book Jarrett writes, “My inspiration for this work has come from the many people with learning disabilities that I have worked with and alongside for many years” (p. 343).  Unfortunately, his history does not give a voice to these individuals. Given the limitations of the 18th and 19th century record with few means for individuals to articulate their own perspectives, the lack of early voices is understandable. But for a survey that includes recent trends, those voices need to be heard. Nothing about us without us We hope for a future volume, as rich as this one, filled with autobiography, personal essays, socio-political interpretation, and policy recommendations, collaboratively written by those whose lives it seeks to elucidate.  

Those They Called Idiots provides critically important historical context to our understanding of intellectual disability today. By integrating evidence from the arts, history, philosophy, social science, education, and medicine, this comprehensive, well written, multidisciplinary overview of changing concepts and practices will be engaging to novice students and seasoned historians of science. Fundamentally a treatise on how we have grappled with “difference” in human society, this book should be recommended reading across social science, medical science, and ethics curricula.  

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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