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A Historical Overview Of The Mentally Challenged

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A Historical Overview of the Mentally Challenged

What is the definition of a mentally challenged person? Being mentally deficient is not defined as an illness or medical disorder, simply a low limit in functioning, developmental and cognitive abilities. Mentally challenged people are found in all races and cultures, and account for roughly three per cent of the global population. In contrast, a mental illness is a disease of the mind with symptoms severe enough to require psychiatric intervention (e.g. schizophrenia).

There have always been mentally challenged people within our society; however they have not been easily accepted in the past. Low-functioning individuals were once looked upon as "objects" of dread, ridicule or disease, and were even thought to have been demonic or possessed. This view has changed drastically, yet there is still a lot of prejudice towards the mentally challenged and handicapped.

In the United States, institutions for the mentally challenged began to appear in the eighteenth century. These institutions operated under a philosophy of treatment and training in an attempt to provide normal living conditions and work and educational opportunities for the mentally challenged and handicapped. In the beginning, institutions in the United States were not simply "dumping grounds" for unwanted or extremely dependent people; however the character of these institutions changed for the worse. One of the factors causing this change was the invention of the philosophy of eugenics in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The philosophy of eugenics combined the religious tradition of degenerationism (belief that low-functioning people were sinners) with the sciences of genetics and evolution. This philosophy resulted in all of society's evils being blamed on "bad genes." Mental deficiency, criminality and delinquency, prostitution and alcoholism were all seen as a result of defective genes. Sterilization of these "defective people" was an idea proposed to society by those in health care and government, in response to this new philosophy. This idea fitted well with the other factor of the eugenics program; a euthanasia movement advocating the killing of mentally defective babies and children.

Euthanasia became an official policy in Germany during the 1920's, and was openly taught and practiced in medical establishments throughout the country. In the United States euthanasia never became official medical policy; however it was practiced and openly advocated.

These types of attitudes in medical practitioners and other scientific supporters had a strong influence over the treatment of mentally challenged people throughout the twentieth century. Institutions became places that the mentally challenged went to and never left for their entire life. Those with severe disabilities were seen as completely custodial and efforts to support them were completely abandoned. High functioning individuals in institutions were given training and support, but largely only so that they could work on the institution grounds as a source of free labour. During the 1930's funds for many institutions were almost completely used up due to the Great Depression, so staff was of short supply and poorly trained. However, institutions began to fill up rapidly, as many families couldn't afford to care for their disabled or mentally challenged family member.

During this time period the school system classes for mentally challenged students (that were considered educable) were inadequate in number, and no education was available for the low functioning members of society outside of state schools. There were almost no services for a mentally challenged child after they reach the age of sixteen. After the Second World War no substantial improvements were made in the care of retarded children until well into the 1960's.

At this point in time both parents and professionals began to acknowledge the lack of services and supports for the mentally challenged. These people were part of the stirrings of a new social consciousness and treatment of the mentally challenged. Sensitivity began to develop towards this group's situation.

The first parent groups concerning mentally challenged children had begun to appear in the early 1930's. Such groups were concerned with providing their low functioning children with recreational programs and better facilities. These "leagues" were small groups without any political influence, however this changed with the forming of a league known as the Art and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). This group advocated a general approach to the problem of how to support the mentally challenged on a political level. Before the AHRC formed, none of the leagues had been interested in community-based services for low functioning community members. At the same time, the lack of services available for a family with a low functioning member were dismal, and most mental health professionals, educators, and institution directors were ineffective in dealing with the issues facing most families in such situations. The AHRC was formed in response to those types of issues.

During the 1970's a movement began based on removing the need for any institutions. This movement reflected the emerging concern for the civil rights of the mentally challenged. In 1992 the Americans with Disabilities Act took affect, which prevented work agencies and labour unions from discriminating against the mentally challenged, paying them lower wages than another person for the same job, or question them about their disabilities. By the l990's mentally challenged children also began to become integrated; they moved from being placed in institutions to mentally retarded classrooms at regular schools, to complete



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