From “changelings” to “libtards”: Intellectual disability in the eighteenth century and beyond

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Polemical invective of this sort implicitly calls upon opponents to return to private life and shut up because their poor mental function disqualifies them from participating in public affairs. Critical disability studies challenges us to uncover what was at stake with regard to the concept of idiocy and to identify the purposes it served in the cultural imagination. Looking in the Oxford English Dictionary, we find that the first sense of “idiocy” has to do with status and is one no longer in use, having fallen out of circulation by the nineteenth century. A striking example of lumping an unrelated impairment together with functional idiocy is the case of Samuel Johnson, who apparently lived with Tourette syndrome, a condition identified during his lifetime. Locke’s influence as well as the tendency to engage in secular demonizing can also be detected in Frances Burney’s 1796 novel Camilla. The titular hero’s sister, Eugenia, is beloved by her family for her intelligence and sweetness.

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The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability

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