Finding Normal

Sara Vogt has used her B.A. degree in German as a passport to advance work in disability studies.

Sara Vogt rubs shoulders every day with the likes of doctors, physical therapists, medical ethicists, and psychologists. As a graduate student in the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, she teaches “special topics” courses for first-year medical students, holds a research assistantship in medical humanities, and, for her Ph.D. dissertation, is probing one of medical science’s touchiest subjects, eugenics.

None of what Vogt is up to may shout “German major,” but Vogt indeed is one of GSD’s own, launching herself directly from a B.A. degree in German into the health sciences. What’s more, she’s used her German degree to open one door after another—landing, finally, in the vanguard of disability studies, a burgeoning interdisciplinary field that links the health sciences to the liberal arts.

Vogt hadn’t imagined such a field could exist when she began her University studies in fall 1995. Initially a science major, she had her sights set on a career as an occupational therapist. “I just felt this pull toward disability as my life’s work,” says Vogt, describing a childhood in Milwaukee peopled with disabled friends and relatives— as well as the kids with autism and cognitive impairments she met tagging along to work with her mother, a special education aide.

Inspired by the liberal arts
Vogt says she grasped early on, “without having the vocabulary to say it, that disability was about being part of an oppressed minority. I understood disability was about social issues as well as physical ones.”

That understanding only deepened for Vogt in the liberal arts: “Learning about other cultures, histories, and experiences helped me to deconstruct the notion of fixed truth, to see that there’s no single definition of ‘normal.’ This had a profound effect on my thinking about disability.”

Vogt became a German major when she found herself pushing aside her anatomy textbooks to focus on the German courses she took as electives. She credits her GSD professors, especially Arlene Teraoka, for helping her find a way “to connect my intellectual, social, and scientific interests all at once.”

Teraoka, Vogt’s adviser, “showed me so brilliantly how literary texts could be primary source material to explore social and political issues, and she was so passionate about this herself. She was a role model for what I wanted to do with disability,” says Vogt. Teraoka also referred Vogt to a summer institute in disability studies—combining history, medicine, cultural studies, and literary scholarship. This institute, in turn, led her to the graduate program at the University of Illinois.

Converging interests
Her GSD professors didn’t literally follow her to Chicago, but what Vogt learned from them has continued to shape her career path. She’d barely settled into her apartment just west of Chicago’s Loop when her knowledge of German netted her a ticket to a disability studies conference in Germany, as a translator.

Then, back on campus, Vogt’s German academic background and her disability interests converged even more significantly. In the library, Vogt’s advisers stumbled upon documents illuminating a little-examined link between the infamous eugenics practices of Nazi Germany and the earlier “racial hygiene” movement begun in England in the late 19th century and popularized in the United States. Vogt discovered that people with disabilities were in both cases primary targets of eugenicists, scientists and medical doctors who focused on “improving” the human breeding pool.

For Vogt, this was a life-defining moment. “I realized I’d found my mission—recovering one of the many lost histories of disabled people.” Today, analyzing texts as historical documents just as her GSD mentors once did, she is hard at work on a dissertation probing a half century of tangled links between eugenics and disability involving Germany and the United States.

“In the last few years, there’s been a flurry of research about the connection between the American eugenics movement and the rise of eugenics in Germany, but with respect to disability, there’s still hardly anything,” Vogt says. She explains that the medical doctors and public health professionals who championed eugenics thought that “outward markers of difference”—physical, cognitive, or psychiatric disabilities— reflected weaknesses that should be rooted out of the gene pool. At best, these disabilities were seen as signs of “feeble-mindedness”; at worst, as symbols of “internal deviance.”

Understandably reluctant to claim one of the least noble chapters of scientific history, most scientists these days reflexively dismiss eugenics as the product of Nazi extremism, says Vogt. In fact, she says, U.S. eugenicists were brought to Germany in the early 20th century and awarded honorary doctorates to teach eugenics to German scientists. That laid the foundation for German practices including the sterilization of 400,000 people with “hereditary illnesses” and for Hitler’s T4 program, which killed 240,000 people “whose lives were thought unworthy because of disability.” This program, which set up gas chambers in institutions for the disabled, was a pilot project for the concentration camps.

The policing of bodies
In her dissertation, Vogt wades into the history of eugenics and disability from a ground-level perspective. Understanding that the ideology of eugenics infiltrated both scientific discourse and popular culture, Vogt’s focus is on the “various layers of participation in eugenics by women in professional, activist, and domestic spheres, both in Germany and in the United States.”

Women—white and of middle and upper classes—were the field workers who collected the data that fueled eugenic research, Vogt says. They also advanced eugenic arguments as part of early feminist campaigns for birth control. And as mothers, they “played a key role in ensuring that the ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ increased their reproductive stock.

“In a sense, women became the mediators between ‘male’ medical science and disabled bodies,” Vogt says. “The premise of my work is that knowingly or unknowingly, women ultimately shared some of the responsibility for securing the racial purity of the nation.”

Redefining “normal”
Vogt, who is the first in her family ever to attend college, hopes her work eventually will land her a university job—either in German, with a disability focus, or in disability studies, with a German- American focus. She expects her research not only to fill in parts of disability history, but also to promote useful debate about the very definitions of disability and normality. Disability “typically has been medicalized and pathologized,” Vogt says. “As a result, it carries connotations of defective, inferior, handicapped.”

Until we reconfigure our fundamental notions about normalcy, Vogt argues, “disability will remain this undesirable ‘thing.’ People want to write eugenics off as ‘quack science,’ but as long as you have things like IQ tests, you leave the eugenics door cracked open. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable to even talk about that. But think about genetic therapies in the context of disability. You can see it might be dangerous not to examine things at the roots."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on March 6, 2009 10:06 AM.

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