The social/cultural implication of disability:
Vygotsky's paradigm for special education

Published in: "Educational Psychologist", (1995). Vol. 30, #2, pp. 77-81.

ABSTRACT: Lev Vygotsky's contribution to "defectology" became a significant part of his overall theoretical legacy. Within his general theory of child development, he created a comprehensive and practically-oriented paradigm of educating children with special needs. The following topics, in their relevance to contemporary special education and school/educational psychology, are discussed: Vygotsky's views on the nature of handicapping conditions in children; the principles of psychoeducational evaluation of the disabled; the issue of the compensation and education of children with sensory and cognitive impairments.

INTRODUCTION: Lev S. Vygotsky, one of the most influential psychologists of this century, has been appreciated in the West mostly as a methodologist of psychology, a cognitive developmentalist, a psycholinguist, and a learning theorist. His contributions to the field of special education and school/educational psychology are less known. There is a bitter irony in this fact because these domains not only played a very special role in Vygotsky's professional activity and personal life, but they also constitute an important part of his scientific legacy. Only recently, with the publication of the second volume of his Collected Works, "The Fundamentals of Defectology", (Vygotsky, 1993), have his major writings in this area become available to English language readers.

"Defectology" is the term reflecting the domain of Vygotsky's research and practice relevant to contemporary special education and school/educational psychology. Western readers, however, may need some clarification regarding this term and its historical background. The word "Defectologia" (defectology, literally: "study of defect") has no real parallel in the English language and sounds unprepossessing, to say the least. As once noted by an American scholar (McCagg, 1989, p. 40), this term would not survive for three minutes in a discussion of the handicapped in the Western world today because it carries too much negative connotation towards the disabled. Apparently, it has a negative connotation in Russia as well: the name of the Research Institute of Defectology in Moscow was recently changed to "The Scientific-Research Institute of Corrective Pedagogy". For about a century, however, "defectology" in Russia has referred to the study of the handicapped and methods of their evaluation, education, and upbringing. To be precise, this term was applied to the education of sensory, physically, cognitively, and neurologically handicapped children and included four major domains: surdo-pedagogika (education of the hard of hearing and deaf); tiflo-pedagogika (education of the visually impaired and blind); oligophreno-pedagogica (education of the children with mental retardation); and logopedia (education of speech and language impaired children). Although it has no direct analogy in our educational system, "Defectologia" offered services to roughly the same population as special education in the USA, minus two large groups of handicapped students: the emotionally disturbed and the learning disabled. Children with severe health problems (e.g., cerebral palsy) or psychiatric disorders (e.g., autism) were under the auspices of the medical profession: the Soviet Ministry of Health used to have its own network of special school-sanatoriums designed for curative education. Children with organically intact brains and sensory systems traditionally belonged to general education in spite of the wide range of educational problems they presented. (For more details, see Gindis, 1986, 1988).

There is evidence that Vygotsky's involvement in defectological practice aroused his interest in the profession and science of psychology (see Luria, 1982, p. 26). Defectology was the main empirical domain from which L. Vygotsky obtained data to support his theoretical concepts. Well aware of the "artificiality" of the data gained in psychological laboratories, he considered defectology as a huge natural laboratory where general psychological laws were discovered on the basis of various anomalies. It was a reciprocal process: new theoretical discoveries shed light on defectological theories and practice (Yaroshevsky, 1993, Bein, et. al. in Vygotsky, 1983). Above all, it was the area where Vygotsky revealed himself as a skillful organizer and manager of scientific institutions and projects. He founded a laboratory that later was upgraded to a Research Institute of Defectoloy, which exists (under the revised name) today. It was the place where Vygotsky's ideas and his disciples literally survived Stalin's purges of the late '30s (Kozulin, 1984; McCagg, 1989). Many of Vygotsky's major theoretical concepts were formulated and developed within the defectological theoretical framework and terminology, including his original theory of "disontogenesis" ("defective" or "distorted" development) as a part of the general cultural-historical theory (Yaroshevsky, 1993; Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991; Kozulin, 1990).

UNDERSTANDING THE SOCIAL SUBSTANCE AND DYNAMIC NATURE OF THE HANDICAP: L. Vygotsky believed in deep links between "normal" and "abnormal" behavior: both were parts of human development following certain patterns of formation. In this respect, his general developmental theory is relevant to the study of handicapped children as well. Vygotsky formulated the following basic assertions of child development fully applicable to the phenomenon of disontogenesis (distorted development). Human development is a socio-genetic process carried out in the social activities of children with adults: education "generates" and leads development which is the result of social learning through the internalization of culture and social relationships. Development is not a straight path of quantitative gains and accumulations, but a series of qualitative, dialectic transformations, a complex process of integration and disintegration. Each stage is characterized by a particular organization of psychological activity. Culture is acquired through interiorization of social signs, starting with language. The essence and uniqueness of human behavior resides in its mediation by material instruments and social signs/language.

Within the context of development, there are two classes of psychological functions: "lower" (natural) and "higher" (cultural). The first class comprises elementary perception, memory, attention, dynamic characteristics of the nervous system, and, in short, all that creates the biological predisposition of the child's development. The second class includes abstract reasoning, logical memory, language, voluntary attention, planning, decision making, etc. These are specifically human functions that appear gradually in a course of transformation of the lower functions, which are structured and transformed according to specifically human social goals and means of conduct. The transformation is made through the so-called "mediated activity" and "psychological tools" (for a more in-depth discussion and elaboration, see: Wertsch, 1985; Kozulin, 1990; Newman & Holzman, 1993). The formation of individual consciousness takes place through relations with others: it is socially meaningful activity that shapes an individual makeup. Vygotsky indicated that each psychological function in the child "... appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside a child (intrapsychological) (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57).

Understanding the nature of a defect and the means of compensating for it is the core of any system of rehabilitation or special education. Traditionally, a sensory defect or a mental weakness was regarded as a "biological" fact (as a kind of "disease") which, in turn, determined the "psychological consequences". A handicapped child was considered to be either "underdeveloped/developmentally delayed" (in the case of mental retardation) or "a regular child lacking a sensory organ" (in the case of physical and/or sensory impairments). It was believed that the defect could be compensated for by a heightened sensitivity of intact organs, like tactile sense in the blind and vision in the deaf (McCagg, 1989; Kozulin, 1990).

By no means neglecting the biological origin of a handicapping condition, Vygotsky offered a view of a defect as a social abnormality of behavior. Based on the study of self-reports of individuals with impaired organs, he argued that defects are not subjectively perceived as "abnormality" until they are brought into the social context. The human brain, eye, ear, or limb are not just physical organs: impairment of these organs "leads to a restructuring of the social relationships and to a displacement of all the systems of behavior" (Vygotsky, 1983, Vol. 5, p. 63). Moreover, the defect varies psychologically in different social environments: "The blindness of an American farmer's daughter, of a Ukrainian landowner's son, of a German duchess, of a Russian peasant, of a Swedish proletarian - these are all psychologically entirely different facts" (Vygotsky, 1983, Vol 5, p. 70). Another argument: from the survival point of view, blindness, in the world of nature, is a more severe impairment than deafness. In the social world, however, deafness is a more severe handicap because it prevents the mastering of speech, blocks verbal communication, and bars entry to the world of culture; therefore, it "....disrupts a person's social connections in a more substantial way than blindness" (Vygotsky, 1983, Vol. 5, p. 77). In the context of mental retardation, Vygotsky objected to the terms "developmental disability" or "developmental delays." He wrote in "The Fundamentals of Defectoloy": "A child whose development is impeded by a (mental) handicap is not simply a child less developed than his peers; rather, he has developed differently." (Vygotsky, 1983, Vol. 5, p. 96). Vygotsky pointed out that from the social perspective the primary problem of a handicapped condition is not the sensory or neurological impairment itself but its social implications: "Any physical handicap - be it blindness of deafness - not only alters the child's relationship with the world, but above all affects his interaction with people. Any organic defect is revealed as a social abnormality in behavior. It goes without question that blindness and deafness per se are biological factors. However, the teacher must deal not so much with these biological factors by themselves, as much as with their social consequences. When we have before us a blind boy as the object of education, then it is necessary to deal not so much with blindness by itself, as with those conflicts which arise for a blind child upon entering life" (Vygotsky, 1983, Vol. 5, p. 102).

The core of the theory of disontogenesis is the concept of "primary" defects, "secondary" defects, and their interactions. A primary defect is an organic impairment due to both endogenous and exogenous biological causes. A secondary defect refers to distortions of higher psychological functions due to social factors. As Vygotsky wrote, organic impairment prevents handicapped children from mastering some or most social skills and from acquiring knowledge at a proper rate and in an acceptable form. Progressive divergence in social and natural development leads to social deprivation as a society's response to a child's organic impairment. This, in turn, adversely affects the whole developmental process and leads to the emergence of delays and deficiencies - that is, to defective development. From this perspective, many symptoms of handicapping conditions (such as behavioral infantilism or primitivism of emotional reactions in mentally retarded children) are considered to be secondary defects, acquired in the process of social interaction. It is the child's social milieu, not the organic impairment per se, that modifies a course of development and leads to defective development ("disontogenesis").

COMPENSATION, REHABILITATION, AND EDUCATION OF THE HANDICAPPED: An innovative idea of L. Vygotsky's was that the most efficient compensation for the loss or weakness of natural functions can be achieved through the development of the higher psychological functions. Paradoxically, while what may be impaired are the natural processes (visual, auditory, motoric, etc.), the objects of rehabilitation are the cultural processes of abstract reasoning, logical memory, voluntary attention, and so on. Vygotsky pointed to the limitations of traditional sensory-motor training, saying that pure biological compensation (e.g., superior hearing in blind) has been an exception rather than the rule, while the domain of higher psychological activities has no limits: "Training sharpness of hearing in a blind person has natural limitations; compensation through the mightiness of the mind (imagination, reasoning, memorization, etc.) has virtually no limits" (Vygotsky, 1983, Vol. 5, p. 212).

The main goal of special education, therefore, is not only to compensate for primary defects through facilitation and strengthening of intact psychological functions, but mainly to prevent, correct, and rehabilitate secondary defects by psychological and pedagogical means. In the essay "Defect and Compensation" L. Vygotsky wrote that the effectiveness of rehabilitation greatly depends upon the adequacy and timeliness of the methods of correction used in educating the child. The focus of the compensation should be the intensification of cultural enlightenment, the strengthening of the higher psychological functions, the quantity and quality of communication with adults, and the social relationship with a "collective" (an organized group of peers). L. Vygotsky believed that a physical or mental defect could be significantly compensated for by creating alternative but equivalent roads for cultural development. Common laws of development (for handicapped children and their non-handicapped peers) include interiorization of the external cultural activities into internal processes via "psychological tools" and "mediated learning" provided by adults. The concept of the internalization of psychological tools as the main mechanism of development has a special importance for rehabilitation in the field of special education. Different "tools" (e.g., various means of communication) may convey essentially the same educational information or the same meaning: for instance, a message may be received through the Braille lexicon or through lip-reading. "Different symbolic systems correspond to one and the same content of education... Meaning is more important than the sign. Let us change signs but retain meaning" (Vygotsky, 1983, Vol. 5, p. 54). L. Vygotsky pointed out that our civilization has already developed different means (e.g., Braille system, sign language, lip-reading, finger-spelling, etc.) to accommodate a handicapped child's unique way of acculturation though acquiring different symbolic systems. We should continue developing special psychological tools, concluded L.Vygotsky. In an age of sophisticated electronic technology, this appeal is more compelling than ever!

Those educational psychologists who are firmly committed to the idea of "normalization through mainstreaming" of all handicapped children will be challenged by Vygotsky's vision of this issue. On one hand, a reader can find in Vygotsky's works a number of positive general declarations regarding the idea of "mainstreaming." His criticism of a "negative model of special education" as a combination of lowered expectations, a watered-down curriculum, and social isolation sounds very much up-to-date. On the other hand, L. Vygotsky was convinced that only a truly differentiated learning environment can fully develop a handicapped child's higher psychological functions and overall personality. Special education should not be just a diminished version of a regular education, but a specially designed setting where the entire staff is able to exclusively serve the individual needs of the handicapped child. It should be a special system that employs its specific methods because handicapped students require modified and alternative educational methods. Vygotsky never wrote or implied that handicapped children should attend the same school as their non-handicapped peers; he insisted on creating a learning environment which would supply disabled students with alternative means of communication and development, on using those "psychological tools" that are most appropriate to compensate for their particular disability. Handicapped students need specially trained teachers, a differentiated curriculum, special technological auxiliary means, and simply more time to learn. How realistically can these demands be met in a regular classroom situation?

In Vygotsky's view, the main objective in the field of special education was the creation of what he called a "positive differential approach", that is, the identification of a disabled child from a point of strength, rather than a disability. With his slashing sarcasm, he called the psychometric approach to the evaluation of the disabled an "arithmetical concept of handicap" because of its view of the handicapped child as a sum of negative characteristics. He suggested, for example, the identification of levels of overall independence in children with mental retardation rather than the determination degrees of feeblemindedness. This approach was employed 60 years later by the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMD, 1992).

SCREENING AND TESTING of HANDICAPPED STUDENTS: The search for positive capacities and qualitative characteristics in the development of handicapped children is the "trademark" of Vygotsky's approach to evaluation. L. Vygotsky is rightfully considered to be the founding father of what is now called "dynamic assessment" (Das, 1987; Minick, 1987; Guthke & Wingenfeld, 1992; Lidz, 1991). At the height of the enthusiasm for IQ testing, Vygotsky was one of the first (if not the only one in his time) who defined the limitations of IQ tests by pointing to their poor "ecological" validity: the results of IQ tests are obtained in the artificial environment of a psychologist's office and their transfer to everyday life situations is highly questionable. L.Vygotsky's opposition to the concept of IQ/Mental Age and quantitative diagnostic procedures was based on his understanding of handicap as a process, not a static condition, and on his understanding of development as a dialectical process of mastering cultural means. Vygotsky argued that a specific change in the structure of a handicap takes place during development and under the influence of education. In a case of mental retardation, for example, impaired functioning can be due to "primitivism" (as the result of cultural underdevelopment) and can be the result of the organic defect. Vygotsky considered mental tests insufficient to make this differentiation. He noted that standardized tests measure natural and higher processes together, inappropriately equalizing them. In the essay "Difficult Child", Vygotsky described the case of a bilingual Tatar (a nation within the Russian Federation) girl who was diagnosed as having mental retardation. In fact, her poor performance on the cognitive tests was due to her "primitivism" related to her limited knowledge of either Russian or her native language; as a result, she had not attained the level of acculturation expected for her age. Thus her development was frustrated or even blocked, and she appeared to be mentally retarded. The developmental assessment, Vygotsky insisted, should concentrate on mental processing and certain qualitative indicators, such as cognitive strategies employed by the child; type and character of mistakes; ability to benefit from the help provided by the examiner; emotional reactions to success and failure.

Distinguishing between what a child has already attained (actual level of development) and his/her potential ability to learn (as determined through the process of problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers), was a core concept in his search for alternatives to the standardized tests applied to handicapped students. The difference between these two abilities Vygotsky called the "Zone of Proximal Development" (ZPD). In terms of individual differences, the depth of the Zone of Proximal Development varies, reflecting a child's learning potential. From this perspective, it offers a qualitative distinction between mentally retarded and the educationally neglected, temporally-delayed, or bilingual students from impoverished families. Those children might appear similarly backward in their functioning according to the results of standardized psychological testing (because the IQ tests report the current samples of behavior), but they do indeed differ dramatically in their ability to benefit from an adult's help, as Vygotsky and his followers showed (Lebedinsky, 1985; Lubovsky, 1990; Rubinshtein, 1979). In the West, the notion of ZPD is, perhaps, the best known and experimentally scrutinized concept in the whole legacy of L. Vygotsky (For an elaborative review, see: Rogoff & Wertsch, 1984; Brown & Campione, 1987; Newman & Holzman, 1993; Valsiner & Van der Veer, 1993). The validity and effectiveness of this method applied to the handicapped, whose unaided performance could be extremely limited, still remain to be seen based on further verification of its merits and limits.

CONCLUSION: Lev Vygotsky created the theory of "disontogenesis" which serves as the basis of the most comprehensive, inclusive, and humane practice of special education in the 20th century. By no means did he leave a completed system free from contradictions and "blind spots"; it is rather a blueprint for further elaboration which is open to modifications and development. The timeliness of Vygotsky's theory may be substantiated by empirical data accumulated within the half century since his death, particularly in cross-cultural studies and in educational psychology. Lev S. Vygotsky's legacy sets a course for educational psychology to follow at the turn of 21st century.