Adrian Williams: Disability, Psychology and Ideology

In the December 1981 issue of The Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, p.456, Merryl J. Cross, who describes herself as disabled and a psychologist, makes an attack on the orthodox approach used by psychologists in helping the disabled to adjust to their surroundings. The disabled are deemed to be well adjusted according to how well they accept the status quo and don’t complain. If they don’t accept this approach they are said to lack motivation to succeed.

Cross uses the terminology introduced by W. Ryan and used in his book Blaming the Victim (Vintage Press, 2nd Edn, 1976) which describes the plight of the poor and/or black in the USA. Ryan says that remedial programmes try to help these people to fit into the status quo while doing nothing to alter the society which puts them at the bottom of the pile. He uses the words “exceptionalistic” and “universalistic.” An exceptionalistic analysis leads to blaming the victim and its remedies are private, voluntary, remedial, special, local and exclusive. A universal analysis searches for defects in the community or environment and its remedies are public, legislated, promotive, preventive, general and inclusive.

Ryan has one paragraph admitting the validity of exceptionalistic analyses and the rest of his 234 pages attack just those analyses. Likewise Cross has part of one paragraph in two and a half pages accepting the legitimacy of helping people at this level then moves on “… to do some radical thinking of the structures within which we work…” working toward helping disabled people to live at home or, if in an institution, to have more control over their own lives.

Now, any regular reader of Ideological Commentary will recognise the exceptionalistic analysis as what we call eidostatic and the Universalistic analysis as what we call eidodynamic. We can go further than this. The work of psychologists doing detailed work with the disabled or anyone else, and working within the status quo is a parastatic mode of operation. Cross uses the word ‘oppression’ but she is not trying to encourage the disabled to throw off their chains (crutches?) and change the power structure of a whole society. She seeks to appeal to the conscience of psychologists in general to stop thinking of their own career advancement and to do a reformist job within the present society so we can classify her argument as protodynamic.

Having recognised Cross’s paper as a protodynamic attack on parastatic thinking, where does a Walsbeian analysis come in? Anyone who recognises the validity of this analysis could intervene on either side of the argument or both sides at once or contribute an argument at some other ideological level. It is of no importance to be called two-faced in this context because we admit that we are two-faced and more; we are multi-faced.

I raise this question because I do not see what is the value of a Walsbeian analysis if one never intervene in any one else’s arguments. Does the analysis have any use at all? Are we trying to stir up arguments such as this one about the disabled or cool them down? Are we trying to curb the violence of the most serious arguments (and recognising that the minor ones will never be eliminated?) I would like to see some comments in IC about readers’ ideas for the uses of a Walsbeian analysis.

Comment by the Editor:
Our main response to the above article is to hope that the writer will continue and extend his efforts; we would like more of his work in IC. In the last two paragraphs he asks for comment, and it is accordingly to these that we direct our attention. There is more to be said on the subject than we attempt to say here, and we look forward to responses from readers.

Adrian Williams has wrought better than he realises. He asks where, in the situation he has described, would a Walsbeian analysis come in, would it consist of an intervention or an addition? His question assume that it must take one of these forms, but there is at least one other possible response. It is a characteristically Walsbeian one and his own article has already presented it. This other response is to take the argument as a whole – that is, both sides of it – and, by placing it in a wider context, to show that the question is not: Which side is right? but: What places do the two sides occupy in the wider view? Adrian says the two sides express respectively – the parastatic and protodynamic – he could, perhaps, have expanded on that – and from this it follows that in order to understand the intentions and motivations of the participants, and to predict the effectiveness of their efforts, it is not sufficient to take into account the factors with which they themselves are concerned, such as the numbers of disabled people, the acuteness of their suffering, the practical possibility of fitting them. into society or adapting society to their requirements. It is necessary also to understand the ideology which each side is expressing. With that that we are almost in the position of one trying to understand the actions of a soldier without taking into account that he is under orders from above.

Readers commenting on Adrian’s article may care to take in also the quotation which follows – both the events it describes and the attitude of the writer:

We are all more or less concerned with the question of what ought to be done with babies born so deformed as to be a great nuisance to their parents and to have apparently little prospect of happiness for themselves. Such a one was Miss Biffin, who in 1784 was born without either arms or legs. Astonishing as it may seem to a humanitarian age like ours, it did not occur to her parents to reject her; nor, in that brutal period of our history, was any newspaper correspondent found sufficiently sensitive to suggest that such hideous abortions were unfit to be allowed to live. Mr and Mrs Biffin Senior were so stupid as to see neither that this unattractive creature had little chance of earning her own living nor that it was going to be a great trouble to themselves to bring her up, Instead they devised a costume which hid her deformity as much as possible; and later discovered that by painting miniatures with her nose she was capable of earning a comfortable living. She liked to go to the theatre… and when she went she was carried there by a friend, who proved as dead to all considerations of aesthetics and advanced psychology as her parents had been, for he was foolish enough actually to marry her. When I read this story I put the book down for a moment and reflected how fortunate Miss Biffin was in not having been born in a country and a century which care so profoundly as ours for the underprivileged and the disabled. (TLS 22 Jan 82)

from Ideological Commentary 11, March 1982.