Oct 14, 2019

people with the thing

Social problems like intellectual disability are in fact social constructions … built from a variety of materials: the desire to help and the need to control, infatuation with science and technique and professional status, responses to social change and economic instability.

From the time people with the “thing”—intellectual disability—became social problems requiring help and treatment, the contours of this requirement have changed, sometimes dramatically. But the contours of our regard for people with intellectual disability has not. This and that must be done to them and for them; this and that must be learned about them and said about them to ensure progress in treatment techniques, professional influence, institutional funding, or social control.

It is important to understand that this image of intellectual disability as a “thing,” the object of scientific understanding and intervention, conceals a history shaped by the implicit political choices of the mentally accelerated. In making care more scientific and professional, these political implications have been hidden, but they, more than our explicit “knowledge,” have determined our fabrications of intellectual disability and the gaze with which we regard and control intellectually disabled persons.

And later:

The problem of intellectual disability is a social problem because it is equally a problem of mental acceleration; it implicates our entire society. It is to us, the mentally accelerated, that I direct this book, in the hopes that it will stimulate self-reflection. Perhaps out of this self-evaluation we may create a human solidarity based on what Richard Rorty has called “our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people.” This sensitivity, he reminds us, requires a “redescription of what we ourselves are like.”

From the ferociously argued introduction to James Trent’s Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Intellectual Disability in the United States.