Abstract

Although positive regard for the needs of people with disabilities was apparently uncommon by many accounts prior to the 20th century, this may be a misconception of history. There were likely many people who responded to the needs of their family members and others in need of assistance because of their disablities, and their physical and emotional proximity. This, however, if so, is not easily discernable in historical records. Few and rare voices raised that endeavored to inform and inspire others toward humane treatment and educational interventions for people with disabilities have been documented. This rarity was particulary true for those considered to have an intellectual disability. Evidence of advocacy in disbility history are difficult to find. When found they have been embraced as critical to understanding the development of the field of developmental disabilities. A famous example is the work of Jean Itard. The proposals of the well-known author, Daniel Defoe, however, are also notable for his forward-thinking writing as it related to how society should respond to the needs of people with disabilities. A review of his work provides important examples of a philosophy of advocacy and education that preceded the work of Itard by approximately 75 years but that has rarely been acknowledged. This manuscript highlights and discusses several of these important works and provides a context for Defoe's contributions.

Many Quiet Voices and Those That Can Be Heard

Appeals for the decent treatment of people considered to be inferior because of race, social class, or gender were rare during the 17th century. Such appeals for persons with disabilities might be assumed to be virtually nonexistent or perhaps attributable only to the influence and legacies of saints and prophets. Other calls for more equal treatment and humane care of stigmatized people are not readily evident in historical records. There may have been many men and women who felt compassion for people who lacked the power and the influence to publically assert their value as human beings. Individual acts of concern and advocacy were likely numerous but these acts are not documented because they were performed by people who were not in a social position to express their compassion in a broader way, and in a manner that would become part of the historical record. Surviving documents rarely provide arguments for more equal treatment and humane regard for people with disabilities or other disadvantages. It is of particular interest, therefore, to consider those instances in which a person of some prominence and influence stepped forward as an advocate for people with intellectual disability.

One example of a prominent person in the 17th and 18th centuries who did demonstrate advocacy and action on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities is Jonathon Swift. As a social critic and satirist, Swift is best known for Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal (Damrosch, 2013). Far less recognized today, however, is his support for programs for Irish people who were downtrodden in some way. He saw charity as a moral obligation and he practiced what he preached. He was a frequent contributor to the welfare of others in need in his own neighborhood. His account books show expenditures for “charity,” “poor woman,” “old woman,” and “poor boy.” He was also supportive of numerous hospitals and schools for poor children, and an active director of several charities (Damrosch, 2013).

Swift left his entire fortune to establish a hospital in Dublin for “idiots and lunatics.” At the end of his own satiric obituary, Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, he sarcastically penned,

He gave the little wealth he had

To build a house for fools and mad,

And showed by one satiric touch

No nation wanted it so much

The hospital established by his endowment became known as St. Patrick's Hospital The history of the hospital shows the sincerity of his concern for people with disabilities and says that its foundation “was far from being a satire in stone” (Lochlainn, 1948, p. xii). The spirit embodied in Swift's actions and commitments can also be seen in the life of his contemporary, Daniel Defoe.

The Enlightened Voice of Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe, the English author, journalist, and social critic who lived during the years 1659 to 1731, provides an even more compelling example of disability advocacy in the 17th and 18th centuries. After business failures and bankruptcy earlier in his life, he changed both his name (from Foe to Defoe), and his values. In his life transformation he became what he called a projector. He reinvented himself as a social innovator. He viewed the 1690s as, in his own phrase, a Projecting Age. He defined this age, and himself, in terms of “new contrivances” and “new inventions” in all things including social institutions (Frank, 2011).

Defoe was an early proponent of the novel as a literary form and is best known for his book Robinson Crusoe (Defoe, 1719). This is his fictional account of a man's shipwreck on a deserted island and what has become an epic story of Crusoe's strategies for survival. It is within several of his other works, however, that his sensitivity to the needs, treatment and education for those considered to have an intellectual disability becomes apparent.

An Essay Upon Projects

Defoe's first publication was entitled An Essay Upon Projects. The 1697 book consisted of a series of proposals for social and economic improvements in English society. In this publication, Defoe spoke of people who were at the time referred to as fools. The term was the most common one in usage, and indeed was reflected later in a classificatory frameworks of people who now would be termed as having an intellectual disability (i.e., pure idiots, fools, singletons, or imbeciles; see Howe, 1848/1976).

With regard to fools, Defoe (1697) stated that, of all of the “persons who are the object of our charity, none move my compassion like those whom it has pleased God to leave in a full state of health and strength, but deprived of reason to act for themselves” (p. 63). He went on to say that the lack of care for these people was a cultural shortcoming, and that the time had come in this “wise age” to provide the care for these people that one would give to younger siblings.

Defoe (1697) therefore proposed that a “fool-house” be erected by governments “into which all that are natural or born fools, without respect or distinction, should be admitted and maintained” (p. 63). If this sounds like the kind of institutionalization that was identified as problematic more than 200 years later (e.g., Blatt & Kaplan, 1966; Wolfensberger, 1975), a complete reading of his essays belies such a concern. Defoe proposed that each of these houses of 100 residents should be staffed with a steward [a supervisor of staff], a purveyor [a purchaser of goods and services], a cook, a butler [presumably to be in charge of both the residents and staff], six women to assist the cook and clean the house, six nurses, and a chaplain.

Defoe (1697) added that the house should be “plain and decent.” He thought that ostentation was unnecessary for the betterment of the lives of the people who would live there. This stands in contrast to the institutions that were constructed in the United States in the 20th century that often displayed ornate exteriors that belied the squalid conditions frequently found inside (Blatt & Kaplan, 1966).

The most interesting aspect of Defoe's proposal is his idea for funding the “fool-houses.” He asked that the houses be supported by those who profited from their extraordinarily high intellectual abilities. That is, he thought that the best way of doing so was by making the care of people with lesser intellectual ability a contribution by those of higher ability. To do so, he proposed that “without damage to the persons paying the same, [funds] might be very easily raised by a tax upon learning, to be paid by the authors of books” (p. 2). Specifically Defoe (1697) urged that:

Every book that shall be printed in folio, from 40 sheets and upwards, to pay at the licensing: 5 pounds; 40s, 40 sheets; 20s, every quarto; 20s, every octavo of 10 sheets and upward; 20s, every octavo under 10 sheets, and every bound book in 12 mo.; 10 s, every stitched pamphlet [and] 2s, reprinted copies the same rates. (p. 2)

To supplement the tax support for these houses, Defoe (1697) further asked that additional funds be raised voluntarily by the means of a lottery:

I propose to maintain fools out of our [own personal] folly. And whereas a great deal of money has been thrown about in lotteries, the following proposal would very easily perfect our work…for a hundred thousand tickets at twenty shillings each…an immediate sum of one hundred thousand pounds shall be raised. (p. 3)

Defoe (1697) further emphasized that with these funds the homes should be erected and maintained a mile or two away from cities so that those who might be tempted to view the residents as sources of amusement would be discouraged from doing so by the distance. He added that the stewards of the houses should be in “commission of the peace within the precincts of the house only, and authorized to punish by limited fines or otherwise any person that shall offer any abuse to the poor alms-people, or shall offer to make sport at their condition” (p. 3).

Mere Nature Delineated

In 1719 at the age of 59, Defoe turned to fiction in what many literature scholars consider the first novel, Robinson Crusoe. He followed the success of this book with other novels based on supposedly real people including Moll Flanders in 1722 and A Journal of the Plague Year in the same year. Within his novels, Defoe pursued issues of human relations and social inequities.

Of greater relevance to his earlier writings on intellectual disability, however, is his pamphlet entitled Mere Nature Delineated, which was published in 1726. His observations concern a boy who was found in a forest in northern Germany. He was described as being discovered as naked, and as living on grass, mosses, and the leaves of trees. He was uncommunicative and walked on his hands and knees. He was thought to be about 12-years old and came to be known as Peter the Wild Boy. Speculations concerning Peter's condition ranged from having been raised by wild animals to being an incurable “idiot” (Moorhouse, 2010). Peter was soon brought to London and attracted the attention of the leading intellectuals of the time including Swift and Defoe. He was adopted into the household of King George I and lived to be approximately 65-years old (Historic Royal Places, 2013).

Defoe's (1726) assessment of Peter differed radically from the speculations of others. His profound insights deserve our attention today:

The youth I am now speaking of, is not, indeed, to be rated in the class of souls wholly locked up, at least, not till we see farther; but however, he gives us a view of mere nature, perhaps, the clearer for that…his soul is capable of improvement, differs from us only in the loss it has sustained under so long a denied education. If that be the case, he is then only to be considered as an infant, and that he is just now in the mere state of infancy and childhood. (p. 60)

Defoe (1726) went on to express his faith in education as the only answer to the mysteries of human diversity. He also showed significant confidence in the malleability of the human condition, becoming consequently a most early proponent of universal educability. He stated:

Education seems to me to be the only specific remedy for all the imperfections of nature; that all the difference in souls, or the greatest part at least, that is to say, between the dull and the bright, the sensible and insensible, the active and the indolent, the capable and the incapable, are owing to, and derive from this. (p. 61)

Defoe's (1726) observations on the case of Peter presages what is often referred to as the initiation of the much later concept of special education. One of the classic stories in the history of intellectual disability, of course, is that of Victor, a boy who came to be known as the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Itard, 1806/1962). In 1799 he was found in a forest in France and was assumed to have grown up alone without human contact. He was described as moving and behaving like a wild animal. He was brought to Paris, examined by the eminent physician Phillipe Pinel, and subsequently diagnosed as being an “idiot” (Kanner, 1964). A young physician, Jean Marc Gaspard Itard (1806/1962), did not agree that the boy's condition was incurable. He asked and was granted permission to work with Victor. The boy made only limited progress in language and social skills through techniques that Itard used with him. Yet subsequent generations of educators, psychologists and others have deservedly honored his efforts as the beginnings of remedial and individualized instruction (Itard, 1962). Itard has consequently been referred to as the “Father of Special Education.” Although there is no intent herein to detract from an appreciation of Itard's pioneering work, recognizing Defoe's (1726) insights on the similar case of Peter, 73 years earlier, is similarly important. It is also important to recognize that Itard was a practicing physician who worked directly with students who were deaf before he worked with Victor. His experiences molded his hopeful outlook for the amelioration of disabilities. Defoe was a student of philosophy, politics, and social policy, and he was an accomplished writer. His influence was primarily theoretical while Itard's was more grounded in his medical and behavioral interventions. Both made important contributions to what became the field of intellectual disability.

Intellectual Disability Stories

In an era when the work of professionals in the field of intellectual disability is too often denigrated or dismissed as ineffective, it is important to listen to the echoes of Defoe's words. His work stands in stark contrast with that of other authors whose words denigrated persons with disabilities (see, for example, Smith & Polloway, 2013). It warrants inclusion among the intellectual disability stories that have formed this field.

In a very important way, stories of intellectual disability have nourished and sustained the field in its development. The stories of Itard and Victor, of Samuel Gridley Howe, and of Edward Sequin, for example, have inspired generations of practitioners in the field and provided them with direction. On the other hand, there have been negative stories that have proven to be challenges to the values and aims of disability researchers, scholar, educators, and other leaders. The pessimistic and limiting stories of the Kallikaks and the Jukes, for example, questioned the efficacy and feasibility of providing education for persons with intellectual disability (Smith, 1985). The story of Carrie Buck became central to the argument for the necessity of needless institutional placement and sterilization of thousands of people perceived to be defective (Smith & Nelson, 1989).

Burton Blatt (1987) observed that stories can be nurturing or destructive. He also pointed to the great responsibility that storytellers have to those about whom they tell tales. In The Conquest of Mental Retardation he said:

Every story can enhance life or destroy it. Every story can lift us or depress us. Every story can make a hero or a scapegoat. Stories sustain if not make a person's world. And, thus, the storyteller holds a certain power (and responsibility), for the storyteller is usually safer than those about whom he or she spins tales. (p. 141)

So it is with the work of Defoe who accepted this responsibility in his contributions of stories to the field that have been little noted previously. A prime example are these words that warrant consideration now almost 300 years after he wrote them:

Man is rational, or stupid, just as he is handled by his Teachers; and that as he can neither speak, read, write, dance swim, fence or perform some of the best and most necessary actions of life without being taught, so neither can he know, think, judge, discern, distinguish, determine or any of those operations, in which the Soul is wholly the Operator, without the guidance of an instructor; I mean, without being first led into these things by the hand of a Teacher. (Defoe, 1726, p. 62)

Defoe (1726) eloquently stated what could be considered as the first positive philosophy of change in the lives of people with intellectual disability and the first mission statement for their educability. His words deserve our attention. Across time and cultures his story of the potential for people with disabilities and those who serve them resonates clearly.

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Author notes

J. David Smith, University of North Carolina Greensboro, Emeritus; and Edward A. Polloway, Lynchburg College, Lynchburg, VA.