Historical And Contemporary Perspectives on Intellectual Disabilities

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We now know that intellectual disabilities (ID, formerly mental retardation) are a complex classification of disabilities. These disabilities manifest in different ways, with many different causes. However, this enlightened understanding is fairly recent. It certainly was not evident during different historical periods. It also varies across cultures.

People with ID face many challenges. Many of these challenges are due to the daily difficulties of living with a significant disability. However, these challenges are intensified by stigma and cruelty. Ignorance gives rise to negative social perceptions. This negativity affects both the people with disabilities, and their families.


Historically, IDs were known by many names. These names reflected the knowledge and social prejudices of that historical period. Persons with these disabilities were objectified. This means their humanity was overshadowed by their disability. In this respect, they became a disability rather than a person. For instance, people with ID were often called, "mental retards." This term reflects this objectification by referring to a person as a thing. In this section, we review the social and political issues affecting persons with these disabilities. We place these issues into a historical context.

A Historical Review of Intellectual Disabilities and Social Stigma

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Stigma refers to a visible mark or brand that serves to identify a trait or condition. This trait or condition is judged socially undesirable or dangerous. Stigma causes people to become marginalized members of a society that separates and ostracizes them. Stigmatizing language can have a powerful prejudicial effect.

Prejudice against people with disabilities is apparent across different civilizations throughout history. According to the author Wolf Wolfensberger, persons with intellectual disabilities (ID, formerly mental retardation) have been variously referred to as "less than human," "a burden upon society," "a menace to society," "sick," "mentally ill," "objects of pity," "eternal children," and "holy innocents" throughout the long course of Western history. Some of these perceptions have led to the direct persecution of persons with ID. Others have led to what might be charitably called "benign neglect." Some social roles resulted in better treatment than others did. However, none considered that people with ID are fundamentally human beings. Like all people, they have different limitations and abilities. Likewise, they can enjoy life, and relish success. These qualities make them more similar to other people, than dissimilar.

A historical and cross-cultural review of societal attitudes is very revealing. There is a relationship between the presumed causes of ID and societal mistreatment. Societies that presumed natural causes were less prejudicial. Societies that presumed supernatural causes were more prejudicial. However, even when natural causes were presumed, intellectual disabilities were often confused with mental illness. This confusion further complicated the situation.

Both modern and ancient cultures presumed that demon possession caused ID. Similarly, some cultures thought ID was a punishment by God. There were some exceptions. As early as 1500 B.C. some physicians understood IDs as a medical problem. Although translation is imprecise, the therapeutic papyri of Thebes (Luxor), Egypt, 1500 B.C. reference disabilities of the mind due to brain damage.

Ancient Greeks and Romans looked upon the condition as a burden on society. Accordingly, persons with ID were treated atrociously. The ancient Greeks and Romans commonly killed infants believed to be defective. Others were sold for entertainment. Since demonic possession or God's wrath was believed the cause, they were treated as less than human.

In 2004, Michel Foucault published a book called Madness and Civilization. This fascinating book explores ideas, practices, art, and literature regarding madness (mental illness) in European civilization. Foucault's analysis begins in the Middle Ages. He starts with leprosy. Individuals who had leprosy were cast out of society. They were confined to institutions. As leprosy declined, the institutions that housed people with leprosy were left abandoned. Apparently, the stigma formerly attached to leprosy became attached to 'mad' people. At this time, people with mental illness and ID were lumped into this category. Psychiatric conditions and other brain disorders were not well understood. Therefore, 'mad' people became objects of pity. Alternatively, they were a danger to society. When fears over leprosy began to wane, 'mad' people began to be confined to asylums. Previously, they drifted between towns as homeless beggars and 'fools.' As institutional confinement increased, the causal explanation for 'madness' began to shift. Instead of divine retribution or demonic possession, the causes began to resemble modern medical explanations.

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