Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) is a rehabilitative discipline and practise that emerged in the early 20th-century primarily within the European Continent, the UK, and North America. Although SLP enables many people with speech disabilities to achieve educational, professional, and personal goals, it has roots in eugenic ideas and practices that still echo into many of its current aims of normalizing speech. SLP now addresses a wide range of communicative disabilities but in its inception was largely organized around the problem of stuttering.
Like many sciences in its time, what is now termed Speech-Language Pathology has roots in eugenic concerns and practises. The close association of speech with mental processes and rationality was a prominent motivation for the correction of abnormal speech in the first few decades of the 20th-century. Speech was often understood as the basic tool which made thought possible (Carlson 1937, p. 540), and this association provided strong educational incentives for correcting so-called speech defects. In particular, “mental hygiene” provided a central framing for the diagnosis and treatment of speech defects until the late 1930s. With strong ties to both social hygiene and eugenics, mental hygiene was a movement that sought to cure delinquency and other social ills by addressing the putative mental maladaptation of children (Taubman 2012, p. 80). Within this framework, speech did not simply express the mind but aided its development; abnormal speech accordingly affects the speaker’s personality and emotions such that a direct line was drawn between untreated speech defects, on the one hand, and maladies such as nervousness, delinquency, and criminality, on the other.
Consider for example, an early proponent for public speech correction. In 1916, Ira S. Wile, a medical doctor and advocate for social and mental hygiene, wrote an essay entitled “The Economic Value of Speech Correction” in which he warned that speech defects are an economic, political, educational, and moral drain on society. Speech is used by Wile as an index of (and catalyst for) human mentality such that “the importance of discouragement, anxiety, family distress, embarrassment, diffidence, and shyness upon the development of high moral character cannot be estimated. Wherefore, among delinquents speech deficiencies are noted with greater frequency than among the normal population” (p. 586). The answer to these social dangers of speech deficiency, including that of moral degeneracy, is found for Wile and his contemporaries in elementary school instruction, with the aim of preventing or curing maladies like stuttering at an early age (pg. 584). As part of the mental hygiene project, “speech hygiene” was necessary for the preservation of normalcy “not only for ourselves, but also for the generations that are to follow” (Terman 1914, p. 1).
This anxiety around abnormal speech was compounded by both nationalism and nativism. Early 20th-century American society was concerned with the purity of the English tongue, and by drawing a relation between “One Flag! One Country! One Language!” (The Racquet 1919, p. 1) they sought to safeguard the American nation by disciplining the tongue (Robbins 1918, p. 172). The demand for purity was in large part due to influx of immigrants around this time. Not only were those with speech defects often denied immigration status due to their chance of becoming wards of the state, but speech correction was marshalled to assimilate the voices of foreigners. As McDonald writes in 1916, “a good speech, unhampered by accent, is a requisite for the highest mental and moral development of the immigrant” (p. 864). These anxieties were reflected back on the speech of nationals, leading to the establishment of “better speech weeks” in high schools across the country modelled explicitly after better baby contests (Crumpton 1916, p. 569). The production of correct speech can thus be understood as a function of eugenic concerns and resonate with positive eugenic practices such as better baby and fitter family contests that effectively link public health, nationalism, and eugenics.
Normalization Past and Present
Under the social, economic, and moral threat presented by speech defects, SLP gained momentum in the ‘20s and ‘30s. The practice of speech correction extended into public and private schools, university speech clinics, hospital speech clinics, private practice, and, as a direct extension of mental hygiene, Child Guidance Clinics. This treatment was distinctly normalizing, intended to minimize—and wherever possible cure—defective speech and thereby create productive and healthy communicative subjects.
One the one hand, it is true that SLPs are motivated by a desire to help people overcome the difficulties of living with communicative disabilities. This, and the fact that they were unable to effectively cure stuttering, was one of the reasons influential SLPs such as Charles Van Riper and Wendell Johnson focused on enabling adults to cope with their stuttering. Yet SLP has always been driven by an eliminativist logic that seeks to normalize, assimilate, and ultimately eliminate non-normative speaking bodies from the human population. This, once again, becomes apparent in the 1970s when Van Riper, nearing the end of his eminent career, realized that his attention on adult rather than child stuttering was completely wrong since it failed to stem the tide of stuttering as a social and public health problem (Van Riper 1977, p. 467).
Moreover, it is worth noting that in a 1974 article—almost thirty years after eugenics fell out of favour—Van Riper takes on a persona and muses utopically and fancifully about the eventual (circa 2700) elimination of stuttering, a future history culminating in residential schools, brainwashing, and a state-mandated injunction forbidding stutterers to procreate (Van Riper 1974, pp. 486-7). It is difficult to know how exactly to interpret these wistful sentiments; the point, however, is that even without such draconian measures, SLP continues to operate according to what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2012) calls a “eugenic logic”—the belief that “our world would be a better place if disability could be eliminated” (pp. 339-40). Two contemporary practices stand out in this regard: genetic research and preschool therapy.
Genetic Research and Preschool Therapy
The search for genetic markers of stuttering is slow, but persistent. In 1996, Dennis Drayna joined the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (at the National Institutes of Health) and has led a prominent investigation into the genetic causes of stuttering through analyses of family studies in West Africa and Brazil (Raza et al. 2013; Domingues et al. 2014). The Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research in Edmonton, Alberta, is another research centre investigating the relationship between genetic variation associated with stuttering and brain development (Beal, Bohland and Bartlett 2013). The stated outcomes for this later research are pharmaceutical and neurorehabilitative interventions, but one might ask what outcomes could be expected from the search for genetic markers beyond the eventual possibility of eliminativist genetic therapy.
While therapies among adults who stutter often focus on emotional goals such as dealing with adversity, reducing avoidance, and stuttering more easily, childhood and preschool therapies (such as the Lidcombe Program) are still strongly endorsed as the best chance for eliminating stuttering at the root. This focus on the child and the eradication of speech defects echoes strongly with early eugenic ideologies and practices.
-Joshua St. Pierre
Beal, D.S., Bohland, J. and Bartlett, C. (2013). Pathway to a cure: A strategic research plan to identify the genetic and neural underpinnings of developmental stuttering. Canadian Institute of Health Research.
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Domingues, C.E., Olivera, C.M.C., Oliveira, B.V., Juste, F.S., Andrade, C,F., Giacheti, C.M., Moretti-Fereira, D., Drayna, D. (2014). A genetic linkage study in Brazil identifies a new locus for persistent developmental stuttering on chromosome 10. Genetics and Molecular Research 13: 2094-2101.
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Raza, M.H., Gertz, E.M., Mundorff, J., Lukong, J., Kuster, J., Schäffer, A., Drayna, D. (2013). Linkage analysis of a large African family segregating stuttering suggests polygenic inheritance and assortative mating. Human Genetics 132: 385-396.
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