patients, caretaking, nationalism, special education
Childhood not only occupies its own chronological space in the lives of individuals, but also is a period of nebulous legal, familial, medical, and educational status. In Disabled Children: Contested Caring, 1850 –1979, editors Anne Borsay and Pamela Dale have compiled an impressive array of essays analyzing the experiences of disabled children in Western nations that span a nearly one-hundred-and-thirty-year period. Including a wide variety of national contexts, types of disabilities, and familial capacities, these essays reveal that the daily lives of disabled children varied tremendously. Who cared for them, with what authority and rationale, where, and what caretaking meant, reflected and was part of larger national and regional histories. How children responded to, contested, and demanded care, mattered.
One significant thread and analytical query connecting these essays is that of the consequences of the development of compulsory education— consequences intended and unintended, implicit and explicit. Compulsory education involved the increased integration of medical and educational experts, often with significant power and authority, into the daily lives of children and families. For some families, this meant the removal of children [End Page 676] from the parental home on either a short-term or long-term basis. For some parents, this meant intensified scrutiny and assessment of their parental abilities. However welcome or unwelcome, insertion of the state and state powers into familial households changed the lives of children with disabilities dramatically. Increased surveillance altered lives. As the editors note in their introduction, “hand-in-hand with an impulse to care often went a desire to control” (3).
A related thread is that of developing social welfare programs and private medical charities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In both London and South Wales, for example, charity and government hospitals provided orthopedic care to a limited number of children. Such hospital programs removed children temporarily from their homes based on perceived urgency of need and consequentially entangled parents in larger structural frameworks. Urgency of need, of course, was contested—criteria ranging from the state of a child’s body to parental economic capacity, morality, and additional family obligations. Wheatcroft’s essay on British child guidance services persuasively suggests that an additional criterion often became national need. This point is also demonstrated in an essay on children, Spanish health services, and twentieth-century polio epidemics. As nation states focused on what was needed for their national health and success, attention often focused on disabled children as points of concern.
One of the strengths of this collection is that the essays recognize children as historical actors and individuals, and note that the interests of children and their parents sometimes differed and sometimes came into conflict. With varying degrees of success, and limited by their sources, the authors of these essays seek the voices, self-determination, and willfulness of their young historical subjects. Children experienced their disabilities as well as their engagement with structural authorities and expertise in a multitude of ways—ranging from experiences of great fun and liberation to abuse and degradation. Monk and Manning’s essay on the Kew Asylum in Australia as well as Förhammar and Nelson’s analysis of Swedish children with tuberculosis provide examples of this experiential spectrum. Authors such as Mantin and Borsay expertly mine materials directed at parents for convincing evidence of the agency of children.
These essays can teach historians much about creation and maintenance of disability definitions. As those who claimed service expertise (ranging from teachers to home visitors to doctors) increasingly intervened in the lives of children with disabilities and their parents, they inevitably sought to define disability in clear ways and draw distinctions between disabled and nondisabled children. Children with disabilities thus experienced cultural, physical, and educational demarcation from other children; sometimes their families did too. These essays also suggest that a perceived need for caretaking beyond that considered normal for children (and healthy for [End Page 677] parents), and the receiving of that care, became...