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Conference Abstract: ‘The Association for Aiding Educable Sub-Normal Children Only.’

July 29, 2011

Decorative bar showing the faces of retarded children at Brush Farm, Sydney

Today I submitted an abstract to the upcoming Australasian Welfare History Workshop, which is being held at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, later in the year. I’m quite excited about this conference, the last one was fantastic, and I am confident that this will be quite a good paper, too. If you’re interested in reading more about Mary Barton, check out my earlier post on her. Hopefully I’ll write the second half over the next few weeks.

‘The Association for Aiding Educable Sub-Normal Children Only:’ Communities, power, and categories of disability in Australian voluntary organisations for disabled children, 1950 – 1965

In early 1961 Mary Barton took her mentally sub-normal son, Jo-Jo, for examination at the Schonell House Parent Guidance Centre in Brisbane. Operated by the Queensland Sub-Normal Children’s Welfare Association, a voluntary organisation established by parents a decade previously, Schonell House offered guidance for parents who thought their children unusual, and undertook clinical evaluations of children suspected to be sub-normal. If they were found suitable, the children might be admitted to the Association’s adjacent Occupation Centre, where they would be taught how to ‘become more acceptable to their families.’ Together, Schonell House and the Occupation Centre claimed to provide

 further aid for all parents.

This aid, however, was not extended to Mary and Jo-Jo. Examiners declared Jo-Jo too sub-normal to be helped by the Association. His rejection prompted a series of furious letters from Mary in which she suggested, perhaps appropriately, that the organisation should be re-named

the Association for Aiding Educable Sub-Normal Children Only.

The exclusion of children like Jo-Jo– those considered too subnormal to be helped, those with complex physical impairments, and those who exhibited ‘problem behaviour’– was a pattern repeated by voluntary groups across Australia.

Organisational histories have remembered the large network of non-government facilities for sub-normal children that emerged after the Second World War as places of inclusion, where parents and children came together and formed ‘communities of like minded individuals.’ In this paper, I problematize that assumption, and argue that the communities formed around non-government welfare groups were predicated on a particularly dense series of power relations.

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