Differences in definition

22nd March 1996 at 00:00
BAD-MOUTHING: THE LANGUAGE OF SPECIAL NEEDS, By Jenny Corbett, Falmer Pounds l2.95.

This is a book about the way words are used to describe and define special children. It's a brave book, written with commitment and intensity,linking the struggle of disabled people with the struggle of other minority communities, especially gay and black people.

A central theme is "an attempt to apply a post-modernist analysis" to special language, and in particular a critique of "the voice of enlightened modernity". The texts that Corbett uses for deconstruction are interesting, and her comments - many drawn from her own experience as a special school teacher - fascinating.

Following the lead of Gillian Fulcher, the analysis supposedly rests in a Foucaultian scrutiny of discourse to see how such discourse influences the perception and treatment of "special" children.

From the start, Corbett's position is clear: the language of special needs is "paternalistic and complacent" and a "sugar-coated poison"; disabled people who are antipathetic to disability activists "collude with their oppressors". The voice of the establishment is condemned as naive, complacent and dishonest.

I had few quarrels with this position; I did, however, have a problem with melding the clarion articulation of the position with the analytical framework. "post-modernist analysis" would seem to demand more disinterestedness.

There was nothing of the "eventalisation" of analysis which Foucault encourages. There are no visible signs here of an attempt by the author in her reflections on language consciously to dismantle her own ideological superstructure. Her position, far from being tentative or inchoate, appears to come with a six-digit grid reference.

There are lots of invocations to modify use of language and to bring marginal discourses to the centre. There was a great deal of "we need". For me, the analysis was therefore not post-modern; it was thoroughly modern and theory-first. Its roots lay in a hybrid of labelling theory and social constructionism, with Marxism (in the shape of alienation and class domination) tacitly binding the mixture. Though critical of modernism, assumptions about paternalism and disempowerment seemed to precede the analysis with evidence adduced in support of the theoretical constructs.

Although I'd therefore query the putative analytical stance, there's no denying that this is a book with guts. It comes up with new ideas, it challenges the establishment and it makes the reader feel uncomfortable. It's a gust of fresh air.

Gary Thomas is professor of education at the University of the West of England

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