Educating the ‘Uneducable’: Soviet Deaf-Blind Education and the New Soviet Person

By Charles Beacroft

In 1928, Lucy Wilson, an experienced educator and pedagogue, travelled from the United States to the Soviet Union to compile an accurate account of the advances of Soviet education for the Vanguard Studies of Soviet Russia. In her travels, she arrived to a school for the deaf-blind in the Ukraine and was stunned. She concluded that ‘in Kharkov… there is an experimental school for the scientific study of the deaf-blind which in its ideal, its equipment, its teachers and its results is far ahead of anything that I have chanced to see in any other country.’[1]

trawling-the-archive-for-letters-written-by-women-to-soviet-newspapers
Three children being led by their teacher at the Kharkov School for the Deaf-Blind

Wilson’s amazement concerned the Kharkov Institute for the Deaf-Blind, a school-clinic that remained the focal point for surdotiflopedagogika (deaf-blind education) within the Soviet Union during the interwar period. The founder of the school, Professor Ivan Sokolyansky, who was considered the father of surdotiflopedagogika, had formulated a method that involved the use of self-care techniques, educational practices and mechanical prosthetics to educate previously ‘uneducable’ deaf-blind children.

 

This was representative of the transformative mind-set of social constructivism during the 1920s and 1930s, personified through the proliferation of the New Soviet Person myth. His system, termed ‘humanization’, ensured that deaf-blind children, despite their sensory deprivation, could lead productive, purposeful lives within Soviet society.

Congenital deafblindness is defined as the combination of both sight and hearing loss, often through the catching of tuberculosis, meningitis or Usher’s syndrome at an early age.[2] Children who have not developed language before the onset of their multi-sensory deprivation, face an enormous challenge in communicating with others. They are unable to form relationships or interact successfully with their environment, yet they have a perfectly functioning brain.

Sokolyansky retorted that ‘the child himself will never reach full mental development through his own efforts. Without special pedagogical help, a child is totally disabled for life.’[3] Sokolyansky wished to bring about an ‘awakening’, to create the means for the deaf-blind child to utilise their active mind and develop a method of communication with others.

Before the deaf-blind child could be taught how to speak, Sokolyansky wished to teach such children how to form their own independence. All of his pupils were reliant on others to feed, dress and take care of them before they entered the school. Sokolyansky’s method relied on the formation of their own self-care skills. One particular method,

picture1
A Deaf-Blind man using a ‘reading machine’

known as ‘direct installation’, had the teacher place their hands on the inside of the palms of a deaf-blind child.[4] Together, they would complete a series of activities, such as dressing, washing and eating, so that the child would passively learn how to complete such activities.

 

Over a period of time, the child would eventually take a dominant role and would learn how to successfully complete these actions themselves, independent of their teachers. Sokolyansky was concerned with the creating of useful, industrious children who could think for themselves, form their own opinions and make decisions. His method began the process of ‘humanization’ and lay the foundation for subsequent development.

Language was the next step in surdotiflopedagogika. The ‘oral method’ was shunned by Sokolyansky, and he promoted a teaching curriculum that involved gesticulation, the learning of the dactyl alphabet and Braille.[5] The development of their tactile sense was paramount to the creation of language within the mind of the deaf-blind child. Language would lead to the formation of independent thought and the advancement of their education. With such an education, they could learn to live within Soviet society, free of the confines of their pre-institutionalized selves.

Mechanical prosthetics also formed a significant part of Sokolyansky’s approach to
language development, specifically through his creation and development of both the ‘reading machine’ and the ‘teletaktor’. Both of these machines had developed to allow for the deaf, blind and deaf-blind to successfully have an artificial means of communication within Kharkov.

The ‘reading machine’[6] was developed in Kharkov to allow for the transfer of electronical oscillations that passed through the tips of fingers of a blind or a deaf-blind child, thus creating language through tactile means. Likewise, the ‘teletaktor’[7] served deaf or deaf-blind children and converted sounds into vibrations.

Hence, the child would be able to ‘hear’ their own voices, the voices of others and from what direction the noises came from through the feeling of the vibrations. It was an example of mechanical social engineering and utilised the availability of modern contemporary technology to overcome the sensory impairments of the deaf-blind child.

picture3
Ivan Sokolyansky (left) helps transcribe Olga Skorokhodova’s (right) memoirs

Sokolyansky’s revolutionary methods bore fruit, with every single child within the Kharkov school being able to read, write and communicate (through various mediums) with each other and their peers. Wilson also reiterated how ‘none of the pupils hear, none of them see, but all of them have acquired the necessary basic habits, meaning that they can take care of themselves efficiently, making their own beds, eating like refined human beings, playing and working together happily.’ [8]

One student, named Olga Skorokhodova, became the triumph of surdotiflopedagogika after eventually writing her own autobiography in 1947, entitled How I Perceive the World, and defending her PhD thesis in 1961.[9] She succeeded in becoming a productive, useful member of Soviet society and her achievements paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps in the late Soviet period.

Charles Beacroft is a second year CHASE funded PhD student within the University of East Anglia’s History Department. His doctoral research deals exclusively with the education of deaf-blind children in the early Soviet period. His research interests revolve around the history of disability, social history, and marginalised groups, specifically homeless children and orphans.

References

[1] Lucy Wilson, The New Schools of New Russia (Vanguard Press, New York, 1928), p. 86

[2] David Bakhurst and Carol Padden, The Meshcheryakov Experiment: Soviet Work on the Education of Deaf-Blind Children, Learning and Instruction (1991) Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 201 – 215

[3] GARF, f. 10049, op. 2, d. 389, l. 3

[4] Tatiana A. Basilova, Istoriya Obucheniya Slepogluhih Detei v Rossii (Eskmo Punlishers, Moscow, 2015), pp. 88 – 89

[5] Tatiana A. Basilova, ‘About Sokolyansky and his Method of Teaching Deaf-Blind Children’, Cultural Historical Psychology Journal (2006), Issue 3, p. 12; Irina Sandomirskaya, ‘Skin to Skin: Language in the Soviet Education of Deaf-Blind Children, the 1920s and 1930s’ (2008), Studies in East European Thought, Vol. 60, pp. 332 – 333

[6] S-FPS, f. 1, op. 3.2, d. 51, l. 43

[7] S-FPS, f. 1, op. 3.2, d. 49, l. 62

[8] Wilson, New Schools, p. 86

[9] O. I. Skorokhodova, How I Perceive and Imagine my World (Pedagogy Publishers, Moscow, 1972)

Image Attributions

Image 1: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 189, d. 14, l. 1

Image 2: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 190, d. 21, l. 1

Image 3: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 191, d. 30, l. 1

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