Differing Abilities

5 Great Books on Disability and Special Education - Selected by Choice Reviewer Jerry Neal

The way society has treated, or mistreated, people with disabilities has changed dramatically over the last 200 years. Neglected, mistreated, imprisoned, relegated to second-class citizens, people with a variety “differing abilities” are slowly beginning to receive a treatment of dignity and respect to which they have always been entitled, but seldom enjoyed. Indeed, in the United States it literally took an act of Congress (several of them, in fact) to enable people with special needs to access education, employment, and other benefits that most Americans have always taken for granted. The books selected here represent a small sampling of seminal works that were both enlightening and controversial in their time. They made US society take notice of these people who had been living in the shadows most of their lives.

Christmas in Purgatory: A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation, by Burton Blatt and Fred Kaplan. Human Policy Press, 1974, c1966.
In 1965, Blatt and Fred Kaplan (a photographer) visited several institutions for what was described then as “the mentally retarded” and captured what it was like to “live” there. Many of the disturbing photographs have captions from classical works of literature describing man’s inhumanity to man, and the public became increasingly moved to stop warehousing people and begin to provide more “normalized’ habilitation alternatives.

The Empty Fortress: Infantile Autism and the Birth of the Self, by Bruno Bettelheim. The Free Press, 1967.
Bettelheim, a psychoanalyst, conceived the development of autism as improper interactions (or lack of interactions) between infants and their mothers. His book more or less reinforced the notion of “refrigerator mothers” who, by their cold relationships with their children, caused the children to withdraw into themselves and thus develop what is now known as autism. Nearly all of Bettelheim’s theories on autism have since been repudiated in the special education and medical fields.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. Penguin, 1937. Various reprints.
This classic tale of two drifters, George and Lenny, during the Great Depression typifies the notion that people with intellectual disabilities are not capable of attending to their own affairs and are dependent upon others for day-to-day direction. It also reinforces the misguided assumption that people like Lenny do not know their own strength and are not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions on others.

Psychopathology and Education of the Brain Injured Child, by Alfred Strauss and Laura Lehtinen. Grune and Stratton, 1947.
Although not an intriguing title, and lacking any sort of plot, this book summarizes the authors’ 20-plus years of research on children who did not really fit any other category of exceptionality. Eventually diagnosed with “Strauss Syndrome,” many of the children described would have later been diagnosed as having “specific learning disabilities,” which is now the single largest category of special education students in the United States.

The Wild Boy of Aveyron, by Harlan Lane and Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard. Harvard, 1976.
Itard, a young French physician, discovered Victor the Wild Boy in the woods near the village of Aveyron in the early 1800s. Using meticulous teaching methods that he describes in great detail, Itard’s account lays the foundation for techniques for teaching children with intellectual disabilities that are still being practiced to this day.

About the author:

Dr. Jerry Neal (jneal@ucmo.edu) is Professor of Special Education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Human Development at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri.