A friend and I brought our children to a playground one summer many years ago. As heat, humidity, and noise intensified, one of my twins became unruly and unkempt and had a wild look in the eyes. My friend’s child quickly backed away with fearful disgust and exclaimed, “A monster!” My friend quickly chided, “That’s not nice.”
I wish I would have added, “And it’s not true.” I could have explained, “My child is having a hard time. My child is human.”
If we were to line ourselves up by varying degrees of “normalcy,” no clear delineation would be evident. If we aligned all the stars by luminosity, we might not find a precise moment to distinguish between “bright” and “dim,” yet we would know that all are stars. So it is with humanity.
“You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14). Written c. 1440 B.C., this is one of the first known provisions for the disabled. A thousand years later, Hippocrates (c. 460-377 B.C.) rejected popular superstitious notions as to the etiology of mental illness and concluded that infirmity of the mind was a disease caused in the same way as diseases of the body. For mental illness Hippocrates prescribed the humane treatment of rest, useful work, and understanding companionship.
According to The History of Special Education: From Isolation to Integration, a thousand years after Hippocrates, Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) encountered widespread contempt for individuals with mental infirmities. Denouncing the deplorable subterranean cells and chains into which people with mental illness were thrown to “protect” society, Pinel devised instead “a traitement moral, a humane approach based on purposeful activity, kindness, minimum restraint, structure, routine, and consistency.” His treatments began with frequent visits and conversation. Pinel’s lesser-known successor, Jean Étienne Esquirol, would add to these requirements music, calm, order, and a bright and airy setting.
During the Renaissance, schools for the blind, deaf, and intellectually disabled began emerging throughout Europe. Britain’s first organized establishment for the deaf was founded in Edinburgh by Thomas Braidwood (1715-1806). When Samuel Johnson visited Braidwood and examined the pupils, he remarked, “It was pleasing to see one of the most desperate of human calamities capable of so much help.”
Whether you teach a child to write a zero, to say “thank you,” to parse a Latin sentence, or simply to know that God loves him, you are doing more than educating that child. You are continuing the longstanding, important work of affirming his humanity.