Historical Perspectives on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities #AtoZChallenge

Hi everyone and welcome to my letter H post in the #AtoZChallenge. Today, I will discuss some of the history of intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Throughout history, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were feared and stigmatized. However, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that societies in the western world started taking action to take care of them outside of family homes. At first, institutions were more or less educational, based on the idea that people with intellectual disabilities could learn too. However, towards the end of the 19th century, there interestingly was a shift away from educating towards warehousing. This was when large-scale state institutions were built.

An interesting turn involved the work of Wolf Wolfensberger around the mid-20th century. He believed in “normalization”, a term still used today. In fact, I saw it in the job description for support workers at my home. To be clear, I cringe at this idea, because who decides what is “normal”, anyway? Of course, the idea really should be to value intellectually disabled people’s contributions to society as much as non-disabled (“normal”) people’s. However, I personally find this term used when I am refused a plastic coffee mug to drink from, because a ceramic mug is more “normal”. For those not aware, due to my mild physical disability, I find a plastic one easier to hold.

I can’t end this post without touching on the Nazis’ treatment of the intellectually disabled. Initially, they were open about their eugenic “euthanasia” program, using intellectually disabled people to test mass murder techniques on they could later use on other groups such as the Jews. When families and other people started protesting too much, they went on in secret. The usual methods of killing disabled people in this later stage were starvation and medication overdoses.

I also should really touch on the ever-changing terminology surrounding intellectual disabilities. In the early 20th century, people with an intellectual disability were called “feeble-minded”. Then came terms like “idiot”, “imbecile” and “moron”, referring respectively to people with a severe/profound, moderate and mild intellectual disability. Then came “mental retardation”, which wasn’t actually removed as a term from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) until 2013. The current term in DSM-5 is intellectual developmental disorder, but intellectual disability is most commonly used.

5 thoughts on “Historical Perspectives on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities #AtoZChallenge

    1. It definitely is! Of course, most professional-centered resources claim today we’re doing the best we can, but disability rights activists obviously disagree, as do I.


  1. How unwarranted and cruel the terminology used to be. I’m glad that with awareness, both the verbal and actual part of how people with disabilities are treated has improved tremendously in developed nations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. And of course, your point about this being the case in developed countries is true too, since the reason for warehousing rather than educating at the end of the 19th century in western Europe was mostly due to the poor economic state here.

      Liked by 1 person

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