People with developmental disabilities have been assigned labels throughout history – and not all of them have been positive. While terms such as idiots, feebleminded, imbeciles, mongoloids, mental defectives, and morons are clearly derogatory by today’s standards, they were born from a lack of knowledge about the underlying causes for disabilities and understanding about each person’s potential. Mentally retarded became the preferred terminology in the 1950s – and even this term, originally a clinical description to describe the cognitive development of people with intellectual disabilities – has fallen out of favor for less pejorative terms.
Throughout history, many people with developmental disabilities have endured disgraceful living conditions. Those without means were often placed into poorhouses, while wealthier families tended to keep their children with disabilities at home.
All too common in the 19th century was a practice known as “warning out” people with disabilities and others considered deviant. Warning out involved informing an unwanted newcomer — a person with a disability — that he or she was not welcome in the town and the town would not be responsible for their misfortune. “Passing on” was another widespread practice, which entailed loading persons onto a cart and dropping them off in the next town, as well as “bidding out,” the practice of selling a person with a disability to someone who would provide cheap care and maintenance.
By the 1850s, social reformers created an increased interest in bettering the living conditions of people with disabilities. One such activist, Dorothea Dix (pictured above), advocated for people who often were living in appalling conditions. Her advocacy paved the way for public institutions.
Photo Source: U.S. Library of Congress