Distraction Free Reading

Elements of disability inclusion in Soviet disability pedagogy

For someone interested in the genealogy of disability inclusion in Russia, Soviet disability pedagogy, known at the time under the name of defektologia, may seem to be a somewhat unexpected place to turn to. On the one hand, the Soviet system of korrektsionnoye [corrective] education for children with disabilities embodied isolationism and paternalism, the features which characterized Soviet disability governance more broadly (Shek 2005): schools for students with disabilities were built at a significant distance from the heart of urban life; they functioned predominantly as boarding schools, de facto exerting control over children’s mobility and public appearance; they often had little contact or interaction with mainstream schools and communities. On the other hand, Soviet disability pedagogy also produced moments when disability exclusion, otherwise naturalized across various domains of life, had been problematized and questioned. To them, I turn in this post.

In the interest of space, I only briefly discuss two moments: one is associated with the early work of psychologist Lev Semionovich Vygotsky; the other, with the development of deafblind pedagogy and, in particular, with the Zagorsk experiment (led by Aleksandr Ivanovich Meshcheryakov). Both clusters of ideas and practices, linked to the scholars mentioned above,  instantiate perspectives against the notion that children with disabilities are uneducable and should be isolated and removed from mainstream society. They underscore the significance of environmental factors and appropriate pedagogical techniques crucial for the development of children with disabilities as well as their ability to live full lives. In this sense, these two examples constitute an essential part of the genealogy of disability inclusion in the Soviet and post-Soviet contexts.

Before I move on, a few comments are in order, regarding labels and the general framework of Soviet disability pedagogy. To a reader in 2020, the labels used by Soviet academics appear jarring: they use such terms as defektivnye [defective], defekt [defect], glukhonemye [deaf and mute], umstvenno-otstalye [mentally-retarded], kaleki [cripples].  Today, these terms are considered outdated and not acceptable due to the ableist ideology they reproduce. Later in the 20th century, they would be critiqued and replaced in Russian and in anglophone contexts. In what follows, I use more appropriate contemporary terms, only keeping the original terms in quoted excerpts and titles.

Lev Semionovich Vygotsky’s early work

Reading Lev Vygotsky’s 1924 essay K psikhologii i pedagogike detskoy defektivnosti [Toward the psychology and pedagogy of child disability] in 2020 is a peculiar undertaking. Despite its dated terminology and almost a century of difference between its publication and the present moment, this essay speaks to many issues debated today in Russia and beyond (Smagorinsky 2012): the significance of social aspects of disability-based exclusion, features of an effective pedagogical approach to educating children with disabilities, and programs for the more effective and broader inclusion of people with disabilities in society. For this post, several of Vygotsky’s ideas expressed in the essay matter the most: he differentiated between the social and biological aspects of disability; argued for the importance of community and social engagements in child development; and drew attention to the poorer social resources available to children with disabilities, which slows down their development.

Preceding the social model of disability, which configures disability as an effect of environmental disablement of certain bodies and minds, Vygotsky understood disability as combining bodily and mental conditions and social disablement. In his approach, the social stigma associated with disabilities directly affects these children’s course of development. He writes about learning disabilities: “The social consequences of his [sic; of a child with learning disabilities] defect reinforce, nourish, and solidify the defect itself” (Vygotsky 1924, 29). In Vygotsky’s rendering, impairment is not a problem per se, it becomes a problem because of the lack of a supportive and inclusive social and educational environment.

Although Vygotsky promoted the idea to integrate all learners into a shared environment, he did not go as far as proposing to change the curriculum of mainstream schools. Instead, he suggested a combination of specialized and mainstream schooling, whereby specialized schools would equip children with disabilities to make the best use of the mainstream school. As Peter Smagorinsky suggests, Vygotsky “grounded his approach in efforts to assimilate people of difference into mainstream society by cultivating the potential of the whole person” and using specialized solutions that would enable children with disabilities to keep up with educational standards set up for nondisabled children (Smagorinsky 2012, 10).

Vygotsky’s writing is programmatic. He is not capturing an existent order of things in education but is proposing a way to organize the system of education for children with disabilities differently. As evident from the report written by Efremov, published in the same volume, in the early 1920s, the education of children with disabilities was a rather problematic area. Stereotypes about the deficiency of children with disabilities proliferated:

There is still an unhealthy trend among even those close to the cause of public education. This trend is expressed approximately in the following view: there is [currently] no opportunity to teach healthy [abled] children, but here you still have to spend money on cripples, thereby taking away part of the material resources from healthy children, to engage in some kind of charity (Efremov 1924, 50).

Moreover, as the reader learns from Efremov’s chapter, there were many other problems that schools for children with disabilities experienced on the ground, in addition to stigmatizing stereotypes: lack of material provisions and funds, poor training of teachers, lack of educational literature, to name a few. Yet, for my purposes here—to work toward a genealogy of disability inclusion—regardless of whether Vygotsky’s ideas were implemented or not, they present an example of an early problematization of disability and an attempt to include people with disabilities in broader society.

The Zagorsk Experiment

Another moment that caught my attention as I was exploring the Soviet history of the education of children with disabilities was the so-called Zagorsk Experiment. Named after a group home for deafblind children in Zagorsk (today, Sergiev Posad), the Zagorsk experiment consisted of educating four deafblind children and assisting them pedagogically in getting university degrees. All four students—Yurii Lerner, Sergey Sirotkin, Nataliya Korneeva, and Alexandr Suvorov—graduated with a higher education degree (some went further to get doctorate degrees) from Moscow State University.

The Zagorsk experiment was grand for its time. It was led by Aleksandr Ivanovich Meshcheryakov, who, in turn, had been building on the work of Ivan Afanas’yevich Sokolyansky, a prominent professor of education for deafblind children. Both academics aimed at finding an effective pedagogical method, a reproducible technology, to educate deafblind children, which had not been systematically done in the USSR. Both Meshcheryakov and Sokolyansky received the USSR State prize in 1980 for their work in tiflosurdopedagogika [pedagogy for deafblind children]. Their work was called “the synchrophasotron of social sciences,” equating its significance to the celebrated proton accelerator at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna (So-Edinenie n.d.; Suvorov 2016).

A back and white frame of a teacher holding guiding a child's hands as the child opens a russian doll. The teacher is sitting to the left from the child and is wearing a white medical coat.

A still from the documentary “Talking Hands.” The documentary is available on https://youtu.be/j7JspT21chw

The pedagogical method used in the experiment consisted of techniques referred to as “tentative exploratory reactions” and “cooperative-independent actions” (an example is shown on the image above): with the help of a teacher or an assistant, the student rehearses the movement, learns its mechanics and purposefulness, and then performs the movement themselves, now without the help of the teacher or assistant. Through the gradual withdrawal of controlling effort, the teacher surrenders control to the student. In this manner, the student learns culturally relevant forms of action.

The Zagorsk experiment was an experiment in three senses (Pushchaev 2017a). First, deafblindness itself was considered to be “an experiment that pitiless nature has imposed on a human being” (Pushchaev 2017, 282)—in this sense, the success of this undertaking would be taken as proof of human ability to survive and “overpower nature.” The second aspect of the experiment was explained as a test for Soviet disability pedagogy and psychology to develop a reliable and reproducible method to educate deafblind children. Finally, philosopher Evald Ilyenkov conceptualized this undertaking in the broadest terms as “it showed how the human psyche emerges in general, that is, how the human personality itself emerges in all of its complexity and multifacetedness” (Pushchaev 2017a, 282). Against the backdrop of underdeveloped technologies of deafblind education (globally), an attempt to develop such technologies was considered an utmost test for Soviet pedagogy and humanity in general.

One of the deafblind students and later professor of psychology Aleksandr Suvorov identifies the primary outcome of the experiment providing a substantiated answer to the question of disability’s difference:

In a letter to me dated August 12, 1974, E.V.Ilyenkov answers this question very clearly: “Deafblindness does not create any problems, even the most microscopic in size, that are not encountered by everyone in the course of their lives. Deafblindness only exacerbates them. It does not do anything else” (Suvorov 2016, 651).

Put differently, they confirmed Vygotsky’s previous statement that the difficulties and issues associated with disability and deafblindness, in particular, are technical—they demand new educational technologies, but they do not make child development and advancement impossible, as it had been considered before.

Later in 1988, another participant, Sergey Sirotkin, would reveal that the deafblind participants of the Zagorsk experiment were not congenitally deafblind and came to the Zagorsk group home with developed abilities to comprehend verbal speech. Given that the experiment’s celebration was in no small degree associated with the successful cultivation of students’ ability to comprehend language comprehension, this discovery challenged the experiment’s results and interpretation altogether.

However, although the results of the experiment have been contested—more details about the very vibrant debates around it may be found in Pushchaev’s informative article (2017b)—this attempt to develop effective pedagogical technologies for deafblind children still matters. The very existence of research into the possibility and technical aspects of including deafblind children problematized the dominant idea that deafblind children are “uneducable” and thus excluded from social life “by nature.”


Efremov, P. Ya. 1924. “Vospitanie i obrazovanie slephykh i umstvenno otstalykh detey” [Upbringing and education of blind and mentally retarded children]. In Matters of education of blind, deafmute and mentally-delayed children [Voprosy vospitaniya slepykh, glukhonemykh i umstvennootstalykh detey], 37–77. Moscow.

Malinoskiy, Aleksandr. 1970. “Nekotorye Vozrazheniya E.V.Ilyenkovu i A.I.Meshcheryakovu” [Some objections to E.V.Ilyenkov and A.I.Meshcheryankov]. Priroda 1. https://scepsis.net/library/id_961.html.

Pushchaev, Iu V. 2017a. “The History and Theory of the Zagorsk Experiment: Part 1: The Beginning.” Journal of Russian & East European Psychology 54 (4–5): 271–300.

———. 2017b. “The History and Theory of the Zagorsk Experiment: Part 2: Was It Falsified?” Journal of Russian & East European Psychology 54 (4–5): 301–21.

Shek, Ol’ga. 2005. “Sotsial’noye Isklyucheniye Invalidov v SSSR” [Social Exclusion of People with Disabilities in the USSR]. In Nuzhda i poryadok: Istoriya sotsial’noy raboty v Rossii v 20 veke [Need and order: the history of social work in Russia in 20 century], edited by Pavel Romanov and Elena Iarskaia-Smirnova. Saratov: Nauchnaya Kniga.

Smagorinsky, Peter. 2012. “Vygotsky, ‘Defectology,’ and the Inclusion of People with Difference in the Broader Cultural Stream.” Journal of Language & Literacy Education 8 (1): 1–25.

So-Edinenie. n.d. “The Zagorsk Experiment.” n.d. http://zagorsk.dlibrary.org/ru/nodes/234-zagorskiy-eksperiment.

Suvorov, Aleksandr. 2016. “Lessons From the Zagorsk Experiment for Deafblind Psychology.” Russian Education & Society 58 (9–10): 650–73.

Vygotsky, Lev. 1924. “Toward the Psychology and Pedagogy of Child Defectiveness.” [K psikhologii i pedagogike detskoy defektivnosti] In Matters of education of blind, deafmute and mentally-delayed children [Voprosy vospitaniya slepykh, glukhonemykh i umstvennootstalykh detey]. Moscow.


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