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The Mentally Retarded Child Today -- The Adult Of Tomorrow
Symposium of ILSMH, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1979
Whether the retarded children of today can be the effective adults of tomorrow will depend on the extent to which they have the opportunity to benefit from integrated experiences. Traditionally the schools have been exclusive, refusing to accept children with special problems. It was the physicians, not the educators, who started what today is called special education. Professor Jack Tizard, whose untimely death prevented his hoped-for participation in this Symposium, said already twenty-five years ago that the next major progress in special education of handicapped children had to come from general education, from the regular schools. By this he meant that schools would have to be more receptive to accepting children with handicaps and learning problems. Significantly, one of the last assignments he had before his death was a study for OECD (Organization for Economic and Cultural Development) on the vocational preparation of handicapped children, in the course of which he and the other members of the study group became aware of what is undoubtedly the most sweeping program for educational integration of all handicapped children, in development since 1971 throughout Italy. The League's former president, Yvonne Posternak, has documented this development in a report available from OECD (Posternak, 1979).
For developing countries, here is an issue of extreme importance. If they follow the advice of many professors of education and ministry of education officials, they will repeat history and build a school system which segregates handicapped children from their peers in the ordinary schools, and once such a system is created, it is indeed difficult to make changes, as has most recently been demonstrated by the report of the Warnock Committee to the British Government.
The foregoing comments have sketched out some basic actions that need to be given consideration if we want to enable children with mental retardation to be better prepared for assuming their roles as adults of tomorrow.
It is to that second phrase in the title of our Symposium -- The Adult of Tomorrow -- that we must now turn our attention. What do we have in store for our handicapped children as they reach adulthood, and what steps do we have to take to help them move forward?
Most appropriately, the 1979 International Year of the Child will be followed by the International Year for Disabled Persons, proclaimed for the year 1981 by a Resolution adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 16,1976. The Resolution set forth the following five objectives:
(1) Helping disabled persons in their physical and psychological adjustment to society;
(2) Promoting all national and international efforts to provide disabled persons with proper assistance, training, care and guidance, to make available to them opportunities for suitable work and to ensure their full integration in society;
(3) Encouraging study and research projects designed to facilitate the practical participation of disabled persons in daily life, for example by improving their access to public buildings and transportation systems;
(4) Educating and informing the public of the rights of disabled persons to participate in and contribute to various aspects of economic, social and political life; and
(5) Promoting effective measures for the prevention of disability and for the rehabilitation of disabled persons.
It is important for us to keep in mind that this Resolution was written with reference to the entire spectrum of disabled persons, the vast majority of whom become disabled after they have reached adulthood.
Looking therefore at the Resolution's first point, helping disabled persons in their physical and psychological adjustment to society, it is apparent that persons with mental retardation face special problems which require a long range program of special assistance from us.
The first of these problems was pointed up by Ann Shearer at the 1978 World Congress of the International League in Vienna when she said that mentally retarded persons, seen as misfits, are too often caught in a half-world between childhood and adulthood, fitting into neither, frozen into a continuous state of becoming prepared to enter adult life, yet not enabled to reach it. This is a formidable societal barrier which we must seek to remove (Shearer/1978).
The second obstacle refers to the fact that within the total disability group, persons with mental retardation have traditionally been a minority within a minority. All too frequently, persons with other handicaps have successfully objected to the inclusion of a mentally retarded person in "their" programs. Reversing the attitudes and value judgements that have led to this "pecking order," this rejection of mentally retarded persons as inferior within the disability group, requires strong and determined help from organizations such as the International League and all its member associations.