Treatment of the Mentally Retarded
Societal attitudes about mental retardation changed considerably over the course of the twentieth century. In the United States in the early part of the century, individuals with mental retardation were generally sent away to schools for the feebleminded, where standards of care varied widely. These were usually large institutions, each accommodating more than one thousand children and adults. Most of the institutions were in rural areas. They often had gardens and a fully operational farm. The male inmates worked on the farm, operating the heavy machinery and tending to the animals. Females did domestic chores such as laundry. Those who were only mildly retarded cared for the more severe cases and also for the young children. Some inmates returned to their families for holidays. Social trends in the early twentieth century, however, did not favor enlightened treatment of the mentally retarded. Instead of the retarded being viewed as harmless children who needed to be taken care of, there was a growing perception that they posed a potential threat to society. It was claimed by society opinion-makers that because of their weak powers of reasoning, the mentally retarded were more likely than others to indulge in criminal activity or immoral sexual behavior. In his book venting the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States , James W. Trent Jr. comments on the period 1900–1920, noting “the increasing insistence . . . that mental defectives, in their amorality and fecundity, were not only linked with social vices but indeed were the most prominent and persistent cause of those vices.” Along with the virtual criminalization of mental retardation, came the eugenics movement, which sought to sterilize those considered unfit to have children. The eugenics movement arose out of a scientific interest in heredity and the belief in the necessity of creating superior human stock. Eugenics attracted support from many of the leading minds of the day, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Carnegie, and many other progressive thinkers. The goal was to use knowledge of heredity to prevent the birth of mental defectives. Eugenicists believed that by cultivating good human stock, many problems that had plagued humanity, such as poverty and crime, as well as mental retardation, could be eradicated. Soon the list included vices such as prostitution, venereal disease, illegitimate births, and drunkenness. Particularly targeted were the mildly retarded, known at the time as morons, since unlike “idiots” (those with the lowest intelligence), they could pass for normal in everyday society and were therefore more dangerous. It was also argued that mental retardation was a permanent condition and that retarded persons could not be educated.
In 1907, the state of Indiana passed the first sterilization law in the United States. Although it focused on criminals and rapists, it also included the mentally retarded. By 1917, eleven more states had followed. After World War I, fifteen more states permitted sterilization in some circumstances. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell , Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in upholding a sterilization law, declared “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The eugenics movement flourished not only in the United States but also in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, where 400,000 people were sterilized. Involuntary sterilization also took place in Sweden (where “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” may be set). Between 1926, when a law permitting sterilization was passed, and continuing until the 1970s, up to 60,000 women were sterilized, for reasons that included mental retardation. In the United States in the years leading up to World War II, the institutionalization of the mentally retarded increased. Many people were committed involuntarily by court order, and they were committed for life. In 1926, there were 43,000 mentally retarded people at state institutions, and this number increased to 81,000 in 1936.
During this period, and persisting right up to the 1950s and in some cases beyond, mental retardation was regarded as a shameful thing. Few families would want to admit that one of their members suffered from the condition. According to Trent, “To have a defective in the family was to be associated with vice, immorality, failure, bad blood, and stupidity.” After World War II, when the full horrors of the Nazi embrace of eugenics became widely known, support for sterilization in the United States faded. It also became known that many previously institutionalized mentally retarded individuals had served successfully in the U.S. armed forces during the war. During the 1960s, there were a number of scandals about how the mentally retarded were being treated in institutions. A notorious photo essay in magazine in 1966 showed neglect, filth, and boredom in state schools for the retarded. In 1967, a visitor to the Sonoma State Hospital in California saw, as reported by Trent, “wards of naked adults sleeping on cement floors often in their own excrement or wandering in open dayrooms.” Many were so heavily medicated they were in a daze. In 1972, in another public scandal, two homes for the retarded in New York were the subject of a television expose, which showed conditions, as Trent puts it, “not unlike Nazi death camps.” During this period also, there was a gradual change in public attitudes toward the mentally retarded. People began to realize that such individuals could live outside the institution and lead productive lives. In the 1970s, a public policy of deinstitutionalization led to thousands of retarded people being integrated into their communities, in public schools, and in the workplace. The emphasis was on normalization and inclusion rather than segregation.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Lars Gustafsson, Published by Gale Group, 2010