Defect/compensation is the unit Vygotsky used for the psychology of disability.


In Soviet times, ‘defectology’ was the branch of science which dealt with the education and care of children with all kinds of disability, and Vygotsky chose to do a considerable amount of his work in this area. Vygotsky did not have a ‘deficit model’ of psychology, however. On the contrary, Vygotsky saw the deficit as being on the side of the community which fails to provide for people who differ from the norm.

“The entire apparatus of human culture (the outer form of behaviour) has been adapted to a human being’s normal psychophysiological organisation. Our entire culture is intended for a person who possesses certain organs – a hand, an eye and ear – as well as certain functions of the brain. All our institutions, our technology, all our signs and symbols are intended for a normal human being.” (LSVCW, v. 2, p. 167)


Vygotsky appropriated the approach of Alfred Adler in his work on ‘defectology’. Here the disability becomes a source of development:
The existence of obstacles is not only the main condition for the attainment of a goal but also the indispensable condition for the very emergence of the goal.
... The existence of obstacles creates a “goal” for mental acts, that is, it introduces into development a future-directed mentality. The presence of this “goal” creates a stimulus for compensatory tendencies ... development out of necessity. ...”
“The obstacles which thrust the child forward developmentally are rooted in those conditions of the social milieu in which he is supposed to grow. On the other hand, the child’s whole development is oriented toward achieving a necessary social level. ... (1) a child’s unsocialised, uncultured nature places powerful obstacles in the path of psychological growth; (2) these obstacles serve as stimuli for compensatory development and become the final goal, determining the whole process; (3) the presence of obstacles augments the operation of certain functions and their perfection.. This results in triumph over these obstacles and hence in adaptability or assimilation.” (LSVCW, v. 2, p. 158)

Vygotsky insisted that “education must cope not so much with these biological factors as with their social consequences.” (LSVCW, v. 2, p. 66) The defect and compensation must thus be understood in terms of their impact on the child’s social position. The unit of defect and compensation forms the key to solving the problem of the development of the child who suffers from being different from the social norm.

Vygotsky’s work was continued by many of his students and the work of Alexander Meshcheryakov on the education of deaf-blind children became famous.


Meshcheryakov, A. (1979. Awakening to Life.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1993). The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, Volume 2. The Fundamentals of Defectology. Kluwer Academic Publishers.

-- AndyBlunden - 07 Oct 2014


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Topic revision: 08 Oct 2014, AndyBlunden
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