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The Segregation Of Defectives

Creator: Alexander Johnson (author)
Date: 1903
Publication: Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction
Source: Available at selected libraries

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A possible inference from the title of this committee, that the National Conference is practically agreed upon the question which that title suggests, might not be altogether safe. It is true that discussions and papers leading up to the acceptance of the theory, have had place in our proceedings for many years past. Segregation of such of the defectives as may be properly classed as degenerates, has been the leading topic of at least one presidential address. Many of our best known speakers who have touched upon the subject, have seemed to be of the opinion that, while complete and permanent segregation of all degenerates is impossible, it is desirable that many of them should be separated from the outer world. But the question involves so many things and people, and the opinions of our mixed membership are so diverse that we must beware of assuming universal consent because no serious note of opposition has been heard.


It is certainly agreed that those defectives who need specialized instruction -- the blind, the deaf, the feeble-minded should be segregated during their school life, in institutions designed for special classes. But the term segregation as used in our title, has a much wider connotation than the separation of scholars in different schools. The theory upon which this committee is to report is that of the permanent segregation of those who have inherited their defective condition from their ancestors and who, therefore, should they become parents, would bequeath a similar condition to their children.


Before going further let us forestall criticism by a word of caution. There are few people in the world who are physically and mentally perfect. There are few even in this intelligent assembly, who do not exhibit some of the so-called stigmata of degeneracy. The degenerates whom we have in mind are those who, either physically, or morally, are so far below the normal that their presence in society is hurtful to their fellow citizens, or that their unhindered natural increase is a menace to the well-being of the state.


Before we can state our question intelligently, we must agree on the terms we use. Here is a partial list of those who are often classed as degenerates:


"The chronic insane, the epileptic, the paralytic, the imbecile and idiotic of various grades, the moral imbecile, the sexual pervert, the kleptomaniac; many, if not most, of the chronic inebriates; many of the prostitutes, tramps and minor criminals; many habitual paupers, especially the ignorant and irresponsible mothers of illegitimate children, so common in our poor houses; many of the shiftless poor, ever on the verge of pauperism and often stepping over into it; some of the blind, some deaf-mutes, some consumptives. All these classes in varying degree with others not mentioned, are related as being effects of the one cause which itself is the summing up of many causes -- 'degeneracy'."


Perhaps none of the advocates of segregation of the defectives would desire the immediate, complete control by the state of all who come within the definition given above. Whatever may be done in the future, we are not yet ready for such thorough work. We have neither the perfected methods nor the trained men to carry them out. But there are certain classes of defectives who are either truly, hereditary degenerates or whose condition resembles this so much that they may be treated like them, for whom the time has come for complete and permanent control. These are, besides the chronic insane, who are universally recognized as eligible for such care, the feeble-minded and idiotic of every grade and the epileptic. This ruling does not interfere with the release to normal life of the few questionably feeble-minded who develop under our training until they are practically normal, nor of the epileptic who under scientific treatment and skilled training recover from their condition of unstable equilibrium and gain a normal, nervous balance.


As we get acquainted with defective people and learn their family relations, we discover that not only are they connected as being results of the same general cause, but that close relations of blood may often be found between them. These relations are so frequent that they cannot be accidental. It is a commonplace in institutions for the defectives, that many of their inmates have brothers, sisters, parents or other relatives in the same or similar institutions, or are otherwise members of the great host of defectives, dependents and delinquents whose existence is the reason for our existence as a conference. The neuropathic taint (for all degenerates are neuropathics although neuropathics are not always degenerates) shows itself in different traits in different members of the family. The child of a chronic insane mother may be an idiot, an epileptic, or only a weak-willed, shiftless dependent. The sons of an inebriate will surely be nervous wrecks of some kind but not necessarily all the same kind. Many epileptics have had drunken parents, but some of their brothers and sisters are not epileptics. The kleptomaniac or the sexual pervert probably inherits some form of syphilis or some neurosis caused by the dissipation of his father or his grandfather, but he may be the only one of his family showing such consequences. Some of the scandalous lives of the children of virtuous people have their initial cause in the weakened nervous systems of the parents who lived at high tension in the intellectual and emotional sides and forgot that to keep their bodies in health and strength was as sacred a duty as to keep their souls pure from sin, but many neurotic parents have children who lead blameless lives.

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