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Born that way

No before you ask, this post is not about Lady Gaga. You are not getting me to reveal any secret soft spot for her that easily. Plus her album is called Born This Way, not that I know anything about that.

Instead this post is about a very influential, although not as provocatively dressed, figure in the development of disability services and education, Dr Earl Carlson. Dr Earl Carlson was a prominent neurologist in Early Twentieth-Century America. Dr Carlson was born to a very working class family in Minneapolis in 1897. He went on to attend Yale Medical School and specialised in Cerebral Palsy. He also had Cerebral Palsy himself.

A picture of Dr Earl Carlson 

In 1948 Dr Carlson was sponsored by the NZ Crippled Children Society (CCS Disability Action) to visit New Zealand. During his visit he produced a report for the Government. The report resulted in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Rotorua being altered to ‘admit’ 30 people with cerebral palsy. His recommendations also led to the setting up of special schools and units focused on educating children with physical disabilities. Dr Carlson had an enormous impact on the development of special education services in New Zealand.

Dr Carlson wrote a book about his life called, Born That Way, which is available from our library. You can also find an online version here.

Dr Carlson was from a time long before the rise of disability rights. As a result, he tends to regard disability as mostly a problem for the individual rather than looking at wider social issues. His views on learning disabilities are also negative. He did, however, challenge the dominant thinking at the time that physical therapy was the only worth while option for children with Cerebral Palsy. Dr Carlson believed that training the mind through academic education was essential. He was very frustrated by the lack of education opportunities for disabled children

Dr Carlson believed all children had a right to education. Although, he suggested those with ‘low-grade mentality’ be restricted to the lower grades. He stated that physical disabilities should not bar anyone from as much educational training as they can benefit from. He believed education provided a vital pathway to a valued role in the community. Dr Carlson himself deeply disliked being pitied and wanted disabled people to become ‘self-dependent members of society’.

Education was extremely important to his life. His mother fought hard against the local school board for him to have access to inclusive education. Dr Carlson went on to fight hard for the right to study at University. He was turned down by the deans of several medical schools because they perceived him to be too disabled to practice medicine even if he could pass the course, which they doubted. He eventually won admission to Yale on a two year trial.

During his studies he was actively discouraged by some people from specialising in Cerebral Palsy. People believed his lived experience would get in the way and that he would be like “a blind man attempting to lead the blind”. Dr Carlson believed different. He thought his lived experience would give him unique insight and improve his ability to relate to children with Cerebral Palsy. He went on to become an extremely influential figure in the development of services, particularly in education.

Despite having a mainstream education himself, his focus on the individual prevented him from seeing the big picture in education. His solution to public schools barring disabled children was the establishment of special schools. Although, he challenged perceptions himself and believed all children had a right to education, he didn’t seem to want to challenge the public school system. He appeared to accept the justification of schools barring disabled children because they ‘upset the other children’.

At the same time, Dr Carlson did acknowledge that social barriers played a role in access to employment. Less than a hundred of the eight thousand patients he saw had, in his view, made a completely satisfactory adjustment to society. He stated that this was not because they lacked ability, but because they had so much trouble in getting an opportunity to exercise their ability. He noted that educated disabled people were often congratulated by potential employers on the courage they had shown in getting an education, but then turned down for the job.

Dr Carlson is a complicated figure. He was a powerful self advocate who believed all children had a right to education. Mainstream education was one of the dominant reasons for his success and he wanted disabled people to have access to employment. Yet his work would leave a legacy of segregation in education that continues to this day.

What Dr Carlson seemed to want above all else was for disabled people to have self respect. His book is an interesting read and it is worthwhile to reflect on his legacy.

I will leave the last word to the man himself:

“But every man varies from his fellows in some respect; and, in the last analysis, success or failure does not depend upon what we lack but rather upon the use we make of what we have.”

Sam Murray
Policy and Advocacy


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