Mental Retardation - History of The Condition

History of The Condition

Intellectual disabilities of all kinds have been documented under a variety of names throughout history. Throughout much of human history, society was unkind to those with any type of disability, and people with intellectual disabilities were commonly viewed as burdens on their families.

Greek and Roman philosophers, who valued reasoning abilities, disparaged people with intellectual disabilities as barely human. The oldest physiological view of mental retardation is in the writings of Hippocrates in the late fifth century BCE, who believed that it was caused by an imbalance in the four humors in the brain.

Until the Enlightenment in Europe, care and asylum was provided by families and the church (in monasteries and other religious communities), focusing on the provision of basic physical needs such as food, shelter and clothing. Negative stereotypes were prominent in social attitudes of the time.

In the 13th century, England declared people with intellectual disabilities to be incapable of making decisions or managing their affairs. Guardianships were created to take over their financial affairs.

In the 17th century, Thomas Willis provided the first description of intellectual disabilities as a disease. He believed that it was caused by structural problems in the brain. According to Willis, the anatomical problems could be either an inborn condition or acquired later in life.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, housing and care moved away from families and towards an asylum model. People were placed by, or removed from, their families (usually in infancy) and housed in large professional institutions, many of which were self-sufficient through the labor of the residents. Some of these institutions provided a very basic level of education (such as differentiation between colors and basic word recognition and numeracy), but most continued to focus solely on the provision of basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Conditions in such institutions varied widely, but the support provided was generally non-individualized, with aberrant behavior and low levels of economic productivity regarded as a burden to society. Individuals of higher wealth were often able to afford higher degrees of care such as home care or private asylums. Heavy tranquilization and assembly line methods of support were the norm, and the medical model of disability prevailed. Services were provided based on the relative ease to the provider, not based on the needs of the individual. A survey taken in 1891 in Cape Town, South Africa shows the distribution between different facilities. Out of 2046 persons surveryed, 1,281 were in private dwellings, 120 in jails, and 645 in asylums, with men representing nearly two thirds of the number surveyed. In situations of scarcity of accommodation, preference was given to white men and black men (whose insanity threatened white society by disrupting employment relations and the tabooed sexual contact with white women).

In the late 19th century, in response to Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, Francis Galton proposed selective breeding of humans to reduce intellectual disabilities. Early in the twentieth century the eugenics movement became popular throughout the world. This led to forced sterilization and prohibition of marriage in most of the developed world and was later used by Hitler as rationale for the mass murder of mentally challenged individuals during the holocaust. Eugenics was later abandoned as an evil violation of human rights, and the practice of forced sterilization and prohibition from marriage was discontinued by most of the developed world by the mid 20th century.

In 1905, Alfred Binet produced the first standardized test for measuring intelligence in children.

Although ancient Roman law had declared people with mental retardation to be incapable of the deliberate intent to harm that was necessary for a person to commit a crime, during the 1920s, Western society believed they were morally degenerate.

Ignoring the prevailing attitude, Civitans adopted service to the developmentally disabled as a major organizational emphasis in 1952. Their earliest efforts included workshops for special education teachers and daycamps for disabled children, all at a time when such training and programs were almost nonexistent. The segregation of people with developmental disabilities wasn't widely questioned by academics or policy-makers until the 1969 publication of Wolf Wolfensberger's seminal work "The Origin and Nature of Our Institutional Models", drawing on some of the ideas proposed by SG Howe 100 years earlier. This book posited that society characterizes people with disabilities as deviant, sub-human and burdens of charity, resulting in the adoption of that "deviant" role. Wolfensberger argued that this dehumanization, and the segregated institutions that result from it, ignored the potential productive contributions that all people can make to society. He pushed for a shift in policy and practice that recognized the human needs of "retardates" and provided the same basic human rights as for the rest of the population.

The publication of this book may be regarded as the first move towards the widespread adoption of the social model of disability in regard to these types of disabilities, and was the impetus for the development of government strategies for desegregation. Successful lawsuits against governments and an increasing awareness of human rights and self-advocacy also contributed to this process, resulting in the passing in the U.S. of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act in 1980.

From the 1960s to the present, most states have moved towards the elimination of segregated institutions. Normalization and deinstitutionalization are dominant. Along with the work of Wolfensberger and others including Gunnar and Rosemary Dybwad, a number of scandalous revelations around the horrific conditions within state institutions created public outrage that led to change to a more community-based method of providing services.

By the mid-1970s, most governments had committed to de-institutionalization, and had started preparing for the wholesale movement of people into the general community, in line with the principles of normalization. In most countries, this was essentially complete by the late 1990s, although the debate over whether or not to close institutions persists in some states, including Massachusetts.

In the past, lead poisoning and infectious diseases were significant causes of intellectual disabilities. Some causes of mental retardation are decreasing, as medical advances, such as vaccination, increases. Other causes are increasing as a proportion of cases, perhaps due to rising maternal age, which is associated with several syndromic forms of mental retardation.

Along with the changes in terminology, and the downward drift in acceptability of the old terms, institutions of all kinds have had to repeatedly change their names. This affects the names of schools, hospitals, societies, government departments, and academic journals. For example, the Midlands Institute of Mental Subnormality became the British Institute of Mental Handicap and is now the British Institute of Learning Disability. This phenomenon is shared with mental health and motor disabilities, and seen to a lesser degree in sensory disabilities.

Read more about this topic:  Mental Retardation

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