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Idiocy: And Its Treatment By The Physiological Method

Creator: Edward Seguin (author)
Date: 1907
Publisher: Teachers' College, Columbia University
Source: Available at selected libraries

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The hand is the best servant of man; the best instrument of work; the best translator of thoughts; the most skillful hand is yet, in respect to certain realizations, as it were idiotic; our own hand shrivels before we suspect the thousands of ideas which it might realize.


But teaching the idiot's hands to work is different from commanding ordinary ones. The prehension and the easy handling of objects effect a few labors; a third element is to be introduced, the aggressive power of the hand over the substances to be worked - power whose use is entirely repugnant to the inoffensive nature of most idiots. This most important use of the hand, its aggressive capacity, is generally assisted by adjuvant instruments. It alters the surrounding bodies into likenesses of some ideal, which must preexist in the mind; it consequently transmutes what is a mode of thinking into a mode of being; it works equally the ever similar wooden doll of the Cretin of the Alps, and the latest improvement in steam or electricity.


The hand displaces and combines objects by prehension; it acts on the surfaces as in polishing, drying, etc., by handling; it acts on the substances proper, as in carving, cutting, hammering, piercing, by aggression.


The practice of treating idiots will show what distance separates these works, what capacities each kind of labor requires; and particularly how the slow and difficult introduction of the child into the class of aggressive works will develop in him steadiness, will, and power, the very qualities most antagonistic to idiocy.


The necessity of working with the hand is urged even upon higher grounds than mere physical or intellectual advantages. Even things being otherwise equal (but things are far from being so, most of the time), the working man is, as such, superior to the idle one: idiots, in particular, are soon morally improved by working. Work every day is prescribed according to their ability, here, once for all, no matter if its products be desultory.


The importance of this subject, conclusion of all the efforts at training the organs of movement, must not make us forget that we have left some anomalies unspoken of, and our few instruments of special gymnastics undescribed.


Shoulders rounded by dejection, crooked sternums, concave clavicles, narrow chests, vicious structures, diminishing the capacity of the lungs for respiration, or of the heart for circulation; curved spines, inequality of strength and structure of the two sides of the body, and similar offsprings of the incapacity of idiots for movement, are treated successfully with our gymnastic instruments, and particularly on the Back-board.


This board is ten inches wide, as long as convenient to stand inclined against a wall like a ladder, and armed with rounds which project laterally by pairs, ten inches apart; it looks like a centipede. The child lies with his back on the board, raises his arms to seize two rounds, and raises his feet from the ground to the first ones below. From this step he is enabled to reach with his hands higher rounds, coming up alternately with his feet, then with his hands, till these reach the top of the board. There he is allowed a little rest, as well to repose himself as to appreciate the novel mode of ascension, the distance from the soil, the look of everything seen for the first time from so high, and to be refreshed from past emotions, so that he can stand what will come next.


Next is the necessity of coming down. To that effect, we tell him to hold on well with his hands, or if we suspect any incapacity or unwillingness to do it, we send somebody up behind the board, whose hands shall press enough on his not to let him fall. At the same time we rapidly bring his two feet from their respective rounds to the centre of the board, slightly adducting the legs and extending the feet. This done with a sensible, not strong jerk, and bearing with a mathematical equality on both sides, we replace, if necessary, the spine on the vertical line, and every organ right and left of it, in their normal relations: no room for shortness, none for weakness; every part must bear its part, play its role, keeps its place. Thus have we seen the most shocking differences between shoulders, deviations, already sensible of the spine, shortness of one limb, disappear under the uniform action of this equalizer, the Back-board.


The swing acting against a spring-board, that we have had occasion to mention as an instrument of passive exercise, becomes one of positive activity if a rope passed through a pulley be put in the hands of the child to pull himself with. We set him in motion, and he alone, or under our sight, or our immediate command, has to continue the motion by drawing on the rope. This apparatus, when properly built, and with the spring-board easily brought into different positions to suit different sized children, is made to be alternately an instrument of passive, or of spontanous -sic-, or of continuous action for strengthening the arms, neck, spine, and legs. It is equally adapted to destroy some nervous sensibilities of the hand, and more commonly of the foot. This latter organ in particular is sometimes so delicate as to avoid the slightest contact, and to refuse even to touch the floor to walk. The repeated push and repulse of the springboard so on do away with these abnormal feelings. The foot recovers its firmness, and endurance of rude contacts; first qualities for the walk.

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