Social and Political Controversies Associated with Intellectual Disabilities

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At first, intellectual disabilities (ID, formerly mental retardation) were misunderstood. Initially, they were considered spiritual acts of retribution. As time went on, the medical causes became known. Once this occurred, the prejudice against people with ID shifted. Public perception shifted from fear and outright rejection. These hostile attitudes were replaced with compassionate rejection, or patronizing over-protection. The history of these changes is discussed here.

Eventually, people with ID were viewed as objects of pity. Rather than outright abominations, they were considered ill; in need of treatment. Perhaps this was an improvement over the active disdain and persecution of previous centuries. However, these attitudes continued to perpetuate damaging stereotypes of people with ID.


Sometimes people with these disabilities were considered unresponsive to help. As such, they were considered a burden to society. Alternatively, they were considering ill and in need of treatment. This latter view seems charitable enough until you consider what 'treatment' entailed. It mostly consisted of quarantined segregation from mainstream society. Moreover, the label of "patient" was disempowering in its own right. It implied people with these disabilities were limited, helpless, and sick. When people with ID are regarded with pity, they are not challenged to develop their strengths and abilities. Without recognizing and tapping into these strengths, they cannot reach their full potential. Unfortunately, people with ID are still regarded with pity, even today.

The most romantic notion of people with ID was "eternal children" or "holy innocents." This view is similar to the "objects of pity." It shares the same faults. Namely, when this view is widely shared, people with these disabilities do not realize their strengths and abilities. This is because they are not challenged to use them. Instead, they are considered perpetual children. This results in benign neglect, or paternalistic over-protection. Viewed in this manner, persons with ID are considered incapable of becoming contributing members of society. Thus, expectations for their development and growth are pessimistic. They are seen as people needing protection from society. This is in contrast to someone who is capable of contributing to society. Furthermore, 'holy innocents' are not held accountable for their actions.

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Legal and social policy for people with intellectual disabilities

As the public became better informed about intellectual disabilities (ID, formerly mental retardation), concerns mounted. Public awareness of the harsh conditions endured by this population prompted social and political reform.

The 1960s was a decade of great social change. These changes included an emerging tolerance for, and acceptance of, all persons with disabilities. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provided some legal protection for people with disabilities. In 1963, the Community Mental Health Act was passed. This was also known as Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act. This act funded the construction of numerous community-based outpatient treatment centers. Recently deinstitutionalized mentally ill persons and persons with ID received services at these centers.

More recently, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed (1990). Its passage heightened social awareness. Subsequently, the quality of life for people with disabilities improved. In October 2010, President Barrack Obama signed into law a bill known as Rosa's Law. This law required the terms "mental retardation" and" mentally retarded" be stricken from federal records. These terms were replaced with "intellectual disability" and "individual with an intellectual disability."

All citizens of the United States share the same inalienable rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. This includes citizens with intellectual disabilities. Some examples of these rights are: the right vote, the right to freedom of speech, and the right to marry. In recent years, these rights have been interpreted to include all individuals with intellectual disabilities. Even people with severe intellectual disabilities, have the right to basic freedoms. It means they must have access to the least restrictive housing and education.

In the past, individuals with intellectual disabilities were abused, neglected, and exploited. Today, in the United States, they have the right to be protected from such mistreatment. They also have the right to equal housing and equal employment opportunities. They have the right to safe and comfortable living conditions. They have the right to receive fair wages for work. They also retain the right to privacy. This includes confidential medical records.

If they are to be committed to a hospital against their will, they must be notified of this legal proceeding. This notification must be at least 10 days before the hearing. They have the right to an attorney in this context, even if they cannot afford to pay for one. They have the right to present witnesses on their behalf. They have the right to an appeal. If committed, they have the right to be placed in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their needs and abilities. It is not a perfect world. These rights are not always perfectly enforced. However, they are there for the enforcing.

The sociological and technological changes of prior centuries advanced our understanding of ID. We have a better idea of what it is like to live with these disabilities. This is not to say that the stigma has vanished. It has not. These sorts of social changes occur very slowly.

Gradually, people with ID are becoming recognized as people of worth and value. They are entitled to dignity and respect. They are capable of growing and learning. They desire the same things that ordinary citizens do. For most of us, this includes meaningful work; a comfortable and secure home; good friends; and a loving family. When provided with proper supports, skills training, and education, these goals are within their reach. People with ID are now being integrated into many mainstream schools, workplaces, and into their communities. No longer are they marginalized outcasts. Instead, they are valuable, contributing members of society.

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