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EENET asia Newsletters : 6th issue content

Defectology - Friend or Foe? The Relationship Between Defectology and Inclusion

Andrea Vogt

In 2007 I conducted primary research as part of an MSc at CIHD in London in “International community disability studies”. The subject of my research was “Access to education for children with disabilities in transitional countries”, focusing on the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union and here particular on Tajikistan. The research included interviews and focus groups discussions with parents, teachers and people with disabilities as well as an in-depth literature review on the subject. One key area of the literature review which was particularly important in this region was the subject of defectology.

From 1997 to 2005 I worked as a practitioner in Uzbekistan involved in Inclusive Education and CBR. During this time I often met people who had studied the subject of defectology and now saw themselves and were seen as the main people responsible for the education and development of children with disabilities. Most of the staff working in special schools or institutions, run by post-soviet Ministries of Education, Social Protection or Health, have been educated within the framework of defectology. Defectology, or corrective education as it is sometimes called, is a pedagogical framework, which created a classification system for children with disabilities. It declared some in-educable and referred them into care of social and medical institutions. This led to the common but incorrect assumption, that in the former communist countries the majority of children with disabilities are living in institutions. Despite the strong recommendations by defectologists, research shows that the large majority of children live with their parents in rural communities, with no or very little access to education or even rehabilitation services.

The Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky [1896-1934] first developed the concept of Defectology in the 1920s. The theory is based on the idea that human development is the process of a child’s mastering its experiences in its social environment. The adult and the child’s peers play the important role of continual guidance and meaningful relationships during this process. Vygotsky was extremely progressive for his time when he argued that “defects” should not be perceived as abnormality, but need to be brought into social context, coming surprisingly close to recent developments in the International Classification of Functioning designed by WHO, that include environment and personal factors rather then the medical diagnosis.

Defectology was primarily a method of child development for children with mild to moderate learning disabilities. Vygotsky strongly opposed the mostly western idea of IQ testing for assessment and definition of developmental levels. Delays in children, who showed strong potential in the assisted tasks, are assumed to be based on social environment, pedagogical neglect or a secondary impairment like Cerebral Palsy and are seen as reversible when taught in the right environment. A much cited example for Vygotsky’s development theory in opposition to an IQ based approach is a bilingual Tatar girl, who had previously been labelled “mentally retarded”, while Vygotsky proved that it was her lack in communication due to bilingual upbringing that lead to her developmental delay.

This example is especially strong as it shows how far today’s defectologists have moved from their founder; as all over Eastern Europe, Roma children live in institutions for learning disabled, due to assessments that neglect their mother tongue and unique cultural upbringing.

Based on this assessment, defectology aims at developing a differentiated learning environment through for example interactive teaching styles, to overcome impairments as much as possible and assist the child in achieving the regular school curriculum. Vygotsky challenged all educators to have a “positive differential approach” of identifying the children’s strength not their disability.

In contrast to the roots and original progressive ideas of defectology, the experience many of us have made when working in the in Eastern Europe or the CIS are rather negative. Ainscow describes how he experienced today’s defectology: “Defectology is usually associated with the education of children with disabilities in special schools, separated from other children. These schools clearly do not encourage any social integration, particularly when they take the form of large-scale residential institutions of the type that exist in some parts of the region.”

Other researchers found that defectologists were especially opposed to new ways or even consider integration or inclusion. In Serbia, the defectologists see themselves as the only people who legitimately can teach children with disabilities. The Faculty of Defectology at the Belgrade University has been opposed to any movement towards Inclusive Education. Some agree with today’s defectologists, that mainstreaming is not successful in providing education for children with disabilities, concluding, that even though Vygotsky criticised special education as combination of low expectations and watered down curriculum, his call for a differentiated environment and the employment of specific methods cannot be met in a regular classroom situation.

I disagree with his assessment and believe that if we look at the cornerstones of Inclusive Education; child centred teaching, flexible curricula adapted to the child, removal of barriers to participation and achievement of all children; these are very compatible with Vygotsky’s original ideas. I would like to invite colleagues from around the world to join us in the discussion, to rediscover how Vygotsky’s original ideas can be a catalyst for inclusion and child centred learning in Eastern Europe and the CIS. If the governments of transitional countries start to take the commitments to international policies seriously they need to be aware of their own heritage and how their local knowledge and culture can strengthen an international goal rather then fight it. A positive role of defectology in Education for All and making such education. Inclusive could provide an example for a locally sensitive implementation of international goals.

The main research results were that the access to education for children with disabilities in transitional countries needs to be seen in the context of their communities. Solutions will need a twin track approach: inclusive community development, tackling the underlying problems of poverty and attitudes; and disability specific programmes that make mainstream schools more inclusive. But one key to success will be the inclusion of the existing cadre of defectologists in the search for solutions, based of the true meaning of defectology.

Ms. Andrea Vogt is the country director for Operation Mercy in Tajikistan. She can be contacted via email: or post:
3, Loiq Sherali St.
Dushanbe 734003