Peter Smagorinsky

Beyond Inclusion: Vygotsky’s Compassionate Defectology

Vygotsky was among the early Soviet psychologists who adapted German “defectology” to the Soviet project. The name “defectology” might suggest that its psychologists  regard children with special needs as defective. As adapted by Vygotsky, however, it is a compassionate field in which children affected by a decade of endless war in Eastern Europe - blinded, deafened, and cognitively impaired by explosives - were not viewed in deficit terms. Rather, Vygotskian defectologists are concerned with creating more supportive developmental environments for them. In other words, to Vygotsky, a deaf child is only hampered by people who treat them as deficient. His solution was to change the thinking of the people surrounding children who had lost capabilities considered normal. The problem of the deaf, he asserted, is a social problem requiring not repair of deficits, but changes in how people treat one another. His defectology was thus about defects in able-bodied people’s thinking, and his approach was grounded in compassion for them and critical attention to the assumptions and actions of able-bodied people who assume that lacking a typical function makes one inferior.