History of Intellectual Disability

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson traces the history of intellectual disability in ancient times, the Middle Ages, and all the way through the 20th century. Its focus is on a mainly Western historical perspective on the topic.

What Is Intellectual Disability?

Intellectual disability (ID) is a hard term to define. We can see it as a developmental disorder that begins in childhood, one that limits a person's ability to reason, learn, and/or or function in daily life. Additionally, albeit not technically correctly, it can be seen as any brain injury that occurs in older age, a brain injury that limits cognition. But more broadly and, in some sense importantly, we can view intellectual disability as a kind of impairment or disability that is determined via a particular society's view of the matter. This means that one nation and/or culture may classify something as an intellectual disability that another nation or culture may not.

Due to these various interpretations of intellectual disability, this lesson will primarily focus on the term and its history from a more Western, particularly U.S., perspective.

Early History Of Intellectual Disability

Some of the very first references to intellectual disability date back to the ancient Egyptians, where this concept is mentioned in the Papyrus of Thebes over 3500 years ago. The ancient Romans and Greeks viewed that children are born with an intellectual disability because the gods are angry. Many of these children were simply left to die in the wild as a result. Of course, exceptions did occur. For instance, if the child was born to a wealthy Roman family, they had some legal rights and even guardians. But in the Middle Ages, people with intellectual disabilities were sometimes employed (willingly or not) as jesters whose sole purpose was to entertain the upper class.

Prior to the 1700s, the way societies treated people with intellectual disabilities differed. Those that had a mild intellectual disability may not have been viewed any differently from anyone else, at least not in the legal or clinical sense. Those with severe intellectual disabilities were sometimes thought of as people who could receive divine revelation. Some of the people who had these more severe conditions may have received care from their family or even a monastery. Other, less fortunate people with ID, were sometimes put into 'idiot cages' in town centers to probably serve as entertainment for people under the official justification of keeping the person with the ID 'out of trouble'.

It wasn't until the 1700s and 1800s that more serious and suitable forms of interventions for people with intellectual disabilities began. For example, Edouard Seguin established a program in Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, France. This program utilized behavioral management techniques and individualized instruction for people with such disorders.

United States History

In the United States, people's thoughts on intellectual disability swung quite a bit as the 19th century progressed and later in the 20th century as well. At the outset of the 19th century, people were optimistic that the intellectually disabled could be integrated into normal life. However, as industrialization and urbanization took over the nation, this optimism gave way to more pessimism. That's because a person could no longer get gainful employment based on physical strength or ability alone, since many new jobs required more and more intellectual ability rather than pure physical ability. In fact, people who had intellectual disability (called feebleminded back then) were blamed by many for the many perils of urbanization, such as poverty and crime.

Society's attitudes toward 'feeblemindedness' only got worse from there. A sad and often forgotten part of U.S. history, dating to the early and mid-20th century, involves this as over 40,000 people were forcibly sterilized in the U.S. in an attempt to get rid of many conditions, including intellectual disabilities, which were thought to be heritable at the time.

With more research, beginning largely in the mid-20th century, it was becoming more and more evident that no single hereditary cause existed for intellectual disability. In fact, research showed that all sorts of things could lead to an intellectual disability, from infection to trauma to endocrine disorders. They had nothing to do with heritable traits whatsoever. Additionally, research at the time showed that the chances someone with an intellectual disability would be born to parents with no such disability were about the same as those born to parents with an intellectual disability. Other studies showed that social class didn't influence the chances of having an intellectually disabled child either.

It wasn't until about the 1950s that, once again, the U.S. population's attitudes towards intellectual disability swung noticeably back towards optimism and compassion. Many programs, such as educational programs, were put in place for people with ID. By the 1960s, this issue had even reached the frontlines of executive attention as President John F. Kennedy created what is now called the President's Committee on Intellectual Disabilities. This helps set the national agenda on ID regarding its research, policy, education, prevention, and services.

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