ERIC Number: EJ1080426
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2004
Polio, Disability, and American Public Schooling: A Historiographical Exploration
Altenbaugh, Richard J.
Education Research and Perspectives, v31 n2 p137-155 2004
Poliomyelitis, a virus that quickly attacks the central nervous system, struck the United States in 1916 with devastating results. Twenty-six states reported some 27,000 cases, claiming 6,000 deaths. The morbidity rate continued to climb during the next four decades until 1955 with the introduction of the Salk vaccine. It proved to be especially virulent among children, ages five to nine, until the 1930s when it began to infect older children and adolescents. The lives of healthy children, if they even survived the initial onset of the disease, experienced a transformation almost overnight: they turned into what became known as "crippled children." Whatever the outcome, misery became a permanent companion: the anxiety created by the onrush of early symptoms, a diagnosis process that usually involved an agonizing spinal tap as well as muscle tests, and a relentless and taxing treatment regimen. In addition to excruciating physical pain and frustrating impairments, these children suffered social rejection from peers in particular and society in general. This article focuses on the historiographical lacuna that exists for the polio experience. The medical role and place of the American public schools has been, at worst, ignored or, at best, relegated to the somewhat obscure field of history of health education or a useful but narrow analysis of the mental hygiene movement. The history of special education too overlooks the specific impact of this disease on school policy and practice. At the same time, and with few exceptions, the historical literature on poliomyelitis has carefully constructed a pantheon of medical heroes. Its celebratory tone focuses on the medical scientists, like Jonas Salk; institutions, such as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP); as well as renowned individuals, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt; omitting the "public" in general and school children in particular. Children--often the actual objects of research--have been overshadowed by the talents of famous scientists and the advances of their medical laboratories, ultimately disappearing from the historical record altogether. The history of education and the history of medicine have, therefore, been treated as discrete entities, or realities. Standard views of disability have oversimplified this experience, relegating it to an illness, social deviance, and as a personal problem. Therefore, fundamental questions remain. How can the history of education be reconstructed while overlooking the impact of the medical world? How can developments in special education be illustrated while ignoring the disabling effect of certain diseases on children? How can the history of medicine marginalize children, often the subjects of treatment? This study reconstructs polios' experiences through autobiographies, oral histories, and visual sources. The analysis maintains a two-part agenda: one pieces together society's perception of polios--the public world; another recreates the daily lives of the afflicted--the personal reality. The author argues that a sharp dichotomy existed between these two universes.
Descriptors: Communicable Diseases, Public Schools, Disabilities, Educational History, Special Education, History, Medicine, Experience, Children, Autobiographies, Oral History, Attitudes toward Disabilities
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Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Research
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