Karin Danell was a pioneer of teaching children with aphasia. She had a lifelong engagement in children who for one reason or another lacked access to language.
Karin Danell was born in Uppsala in 1902 where her father Hjalmar Danell was then a professor. When he was appointed bishop in Skara diocese in 1905, the family moved to the Bishop’s palace Brunsbo, three kilometres outside Skara. Karin Danell grew up in a large family, as the third of ten children. Her mother Maria Danell, née Beckman, had five girls and five boys. Their home was steeped in old-Lutheran religious piety, a patriarchal regime and great care for the farmworkers and people in temporary or recurrent need of a refuge. Karin Danell had severe back trouble as a child and was therefore spared the household chores that fell to the girls. Reading became her great interest and stories and narratives were her companions throughout her life.
Her first experiences of working with children with various difficulties were acquired as a 21-year-old at the state institution Statens Blindanstalt for blind people with complicated disabilities (later Annetorpshemmet) in Lund, where blind people with additional functional disabilities were given schooling and care. She has described some of these children in the book I mörker: några ögonblicksbilder från blindanstalten i Lund in 1925, in the introduction of which she responds to critical voices who opine that it must be “awful”, “monotonous” or “unnecessary” to waste time and engagement on these children.
In the autumn of 1924, Karin Danell was accepted at the Slagsta teacher training college with its associated boarding school, run by the association Föreningen för sinnesslöa barns vård. One of the teachers at the college was Alfhild Tamm, a well-known physician, psychiatrist and pedagogue with a deep interest in children’s language development. Karin Danell was encouraged by Alfhild Tamm to devote herself in the future to children with language disturbances. After completing her education, Karin Danell started – first on a small scale in 1927, in her parents’ home – the boarding school for children with language disturbances that was to be her life’s work. The school was called Lilla Brunsboskolan.
In 1929, Charlottendal, a villa in Skara, was purchased and the school moved there. The number of pupils increased to about ten. Since payment was according to the parents’ capacity, economy became a problem. Friends and family intervened and a support association was founded. Professor Alfred Petrén, the chief inspector of the Health Board saw to it that the school received state support in 1935 as ”sinnesslöskola med specialuppdrag”. The association Föreningen för sinnesslöa barns vård (later Föreningen Sävstaholmsskolorna) took over the running. The association had its enterprise in Gnesta, and in 1935 Charlottendalskolan moved there. The support association was then able to be released from its economic responsibility and was dissolved. The relationship to the teacher training in Slagsta was further developed. Students from there made study visits to Charlottendal, and Karin Danell lectured at Slagsta and later succeeded Alfhild Tamm.
The same Alfred Petrén who had supported Karin Danell in her struggle to give children with aphasia suitable tuition was active in the founding of the department of racial biology at Uppsala University in 1921 and in the parliamentary decision in 1933 on forced sterilisation of certain groups who were considered of no use. It was a time when there was a striving among researchers and decision-makers to classify on various grounds and if necessary separate out those considered undesirable in the community. For Karin Danell, thorough investigation and diagnosis was a requirement. Not to classify and separate, but to give every child the opportunity of optimal development based on her or his weak and strong sides. To place children with aphasia in institutions for the deaf or, in the terminology of the times, those who were ”idiots”, was wrong, not because these groups were less valuable, but because different weaknesses demanded different treatments and pedagogy. The children with speech difficulties were of course “not deaf, although some of them ‘do not hear what one is saying; not ‘backward’ although they are suffering from ailments that to a great degree impede their development”.
Karin Danell claimed that “all disturbances that affect language and speech affect the mental development to a great degree”. Children who spoke unintelligibly or not at all (“expressively” disturbed) could not confirm through conversational nuance or re-examine their experiences of the world around them, and therefore missed out on knowledge, conceptual development and the ability to think logically. Children who do not understand what they hear, who do not comprehend that the language sounds around them have a meaning (the impressive cases), can in the worst case shut off entirely – “with hearing ears they hear not”. Karin Danell asserted the importance when assessing a child’s intellectual capacity of taking into account “ailments related to aphasia”, and their schooling should be planned thereafter.
At Charlottendal, Karin Danell with her colleague Birgit Carlsson and the other staff created an environment in which language development was at the core. The teachers lived close to the children; school and leisure time, work and private life were interwoven. An environment that developed language was their striving, in which the children’s language did not only develop during language exercises but in all contexts: studies in various subjects, mealtimes, play, conflicts and solving conflicts. They created their own pedagogical aids, like language and mathematics games. It was important always to start with what for each child was concrete and familiar.
In the 1950s, the enterprise at Charlottendal met with criticism. It was claimed that the school was old-fashioned and ineffective, and that it was administratively a mess. Organisational changes threatened Karin Danell’s pedagogical foundation: that language must be developed in all contexts, and that specific language training should occur in the interplay with the daily life around the children. The admission of new pupils was bureaucratised and the number of pupils decreased. The association Föreningen Sävstaholmsskolorna found the school too expensive in the running, and therefore the decision was taken to close Charlottendalskolan. The pupils were to be cared for by their own home municipalities. The school became state-owned in 1961, and its demise was then decided.
A bitter struggle followed. The parents fought for their children’s right to tuition on their own terms, and to have access to phoniatric and other expertise. The mass media, with the major national evening tabloid Expressen in the lead, were engaged in the issue. On the other side were the Central School Board with several more state authorities, also supported by phoniatric expertise. The tone became aggressive and Karin Danell was described contemptuously as a reactionary “no-woman”. The conflict was decided in parliament in 1961. Charlottendal was allowed to live on, but was moved in 1964 to Örebro and became a unit in the school for children with impaired hearing: Birgittaskolan. What started as a threat against Karin Danell’s entire life’s work finally ended well. The children acquired new subjects and a richer social life. Karin Danell, according to many a useless administrator though a brilliant pedagogue, left the administrative side and was able to concentrate on teaching. She and Birgit Carlsson acquired new colleagues with new perspectives, and they were able to continue implementing their pedagogy according to the deep knowledge and many years of experience that they had.
Karin Danell retired in 1968. Charlottendal was closed, but was reopened one year later as Hällsboskolan, where children with severe language disturbances nowadays receive tuition on the same basis as at Charlottendal: a language-developing cooperation between school and leisure/everyday life. The children who at the beginning of Karin Danell’s life’s work “barely existed” are now recognised and ensured adequate tuition.
Karin Danell died in Hjo in 1990.