Journal of Medical Humanities 24 (3/4):291-308 (2003)

During the mid 1980s, the renowned American documentary filmmaker Fred Wiseman produced a four-part series of films that sought to record the operations of institutions in Talladega, Alabama, devoted to the care and training of people with disabilities. These films—designated as the Multi-handicapped Series—have received much less attention than Wiseman's earlier work, as if films about disability mark a drastic departure from his previous award-winning productions, such as Titicut Follies (1965) and Hospital (1970). The Multi-handicapped Series takes up general categories of disabled populations as discrete documentary topics, Deaf (1986), Blind (1986), Multi-handicapped (1986) and Adjustment & Work (1986) as opposed to a specific location as in his earlier films. As a result, the latter series of films identify social and interpersonal structures developed in the name of specific conditions. Like Foucault's research on disciplinary tactics, Wiseman's films seek out many of the segregated social spaces typically occupied by persons classified as deviant: prisons, hospitals, charity networks, sheltered workshops, resident facilities, and vocational training structures. The Multi-handicapped Series focuses on the activities of professions and practitioners in education, administration, and therapy, as well as the institutional roles designed for bodies marked as disabled. Unlike its 19th century predecessor classification, feebleminded, the latter twentieth century U.S. policy answer has been waged as a matter of dividing disabilities into a binary structure of orthopedic or cognitive categories. Such a development has left many crossover bodies in a diagnostic no-body's-land. To analyze the history of these developments, this essay recognizes the formation of today's disability category as an effect of new regimes of power; a form of domination based upon the application of particularized diagnostic pathologies that provide the basis for cordoning off bodies which fail to fit neatly within the cognitive/orthopedic binary. As documents of the social spaces that are occupied by disabled people, Wiseman's films offer a rare contemplation of institutional practices and their application to populations viewed as nonnormative
Keywords institutions  institutionalization  deaf  blind  deaf-blind  Wiseman  Foucault  segregation  diagnostic pathologies  training schools  sheltered workshops  archaeological method  cross-disability analysis
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DOI 10.1023/A:1026066621961
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