At the beginning of the 1800’s, science began attempting to replace religion. Society was encouraged to view the world scientifically, and communities began to hospitalize and medically treat the intellectually and developmentally disabled. The early medical practices towards the disabled were by no means satisfactory and led to several new humiliating experiments and malpractices. Although flawed, this was the first step towards change and a view that developmental disabilities could potentially be a manageable disease rather than a sin.
Developmental disabilities were less looked at as a sin, yet it was still considered to be genetic. Standard thought of the period viewed disabilities as the root of almost all social evils, including alcoholism, prostitution, poverty and violent crimes. For this reason, disabled people, especially those labeled as mentally retarded were sterilized, usually forcefully, in an attempt to control the spreading of disabilities from one generation to the next.
The modern book of the time, called “The Almosts: the Study of the Feeble-Minded,” referred to disabled individuals as “almost human.” In spite of this disgraceful term, the book was instrumental in understanding the condition of the developmentally disabled and trying to provide them with medical treatment. Mental hospitals, also then referred to as “Institutions for Idiots,” were established throughout the United States; one of the first being in Massachusetts in the year 1848. Unlike earlier institutes, where the disabled were humiliated and mocked, the hospitals in the early and mid-1800’s showcased empathy and respect towards the developmentally disabled and mentally retarded patients. It was believed that with the correct approach, disabled people could be trained to take care of themselves and that their disabilities could be managed considerably. For the first time in 1878, Down’s Syndrome was recognized and treated as a separate disability. Studied by Dr. John Langdon Down at the Royal Asylum for Idiots in England, he termed people afflicted by Down’s Syndrome as “Mongoloid Idiots” or “Mongols”. A hospital for epilepsy was created in Ohio in 1878 and the “State Asylum for Unteachable Idiots” was created in New York in the same year. It is evident that terms such as “feeble-minded”, “idiots” and “unteachable idiots” was commonly used to refer to developmentally and intellectually disabled individuals.
While the 1800’s started out as a promising time for the disabled, the treatment and care at hospitals and institutes rapidly degraded and worsened. As an attempt to study severe developmental disabilities were made, the optimism that disabled people could be treated and cured waned. By the late 1800’s, it was widely believed that no proper treatment existed for the disabled and such people were again subjected to ridicule and abuse. Institutes turned into asylums for the mentally retarded; the only place they could find shelter in but also a place where they were mistreated and humiliated. Often the disabled were chained to their beds all day in these asylums and any medical treatment they were initially provided, was soon given up on.
Bobby Harris is a driven, experienced and knowledgeable professional within areas such as healthcare, childhood education,abuse intervention and crisis prevention; organizational leadership and intellectual / developmental disabilities.