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Are We Retarding The Retarded?

Creator: Gunnar Dybwad (author)
Date: October 1960
Source: Friends of the Samuel Gridley Howe Library and the Dybwad Family

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Presented at the Tenth Anniversary Convention of the National Association for Retarded Children, Minneapolis, Minn., in October, 1960


In striking contrast to the vigorous and determined leadership of the early pioneers of our movement who pursued their course of action in the face of seemingly unconquerable odds, there is too much readiness in our midst today to accept the limitations others set to our work, and indeed increasingly one hears the comments "We are tired" and "We do the best we can." Surely a vital organization should not be tired after just ten years of existence. And just as our early leaders were not content when officials or agencies assured them in those days that they did "the best they could do," but demanded the best possible for the retarded, we, as local, state, and national association, must apply the same measuring stick to our own present efforts.


There is of course much to report that is encouraging and that is indeed inspiring. In preschool groups, in public school programs for the retarded, in residential care and sheltered workshops, there are many examples of outstanding programs which represent new imaginative thinking and set new frontiers. But all too often one finds that programs have been at a standstill, local units are content to "hold the line," and far from planning aggressively a well-rounded program for all the retarded, many communities offer a very limited program to only a small portion of the retarded.


When it takes not only months but years to put into effect simple public health measures, such as those needed for the prevention of mental retardation due to phenylketonuria so that as a result of these delays children needlessly become victims of this now controllable disease, it is time to become impatient, it is time to get angry.


Perhaps there is need for us to remind ourselves from time to time of the accomplishments of Dorothea Dix, the New England schoolteacher who in the last century singlehandedly fought for humane treatment of the mentally ill and the mentally retarded, appearing before and gaining support from state legislature after state legislature at a time when there was no place for women in public life. Or perhaps we must remind ourselves with greater frequency of that most effective champion of our cause, Representative John Fogarty, who relentlessly day after day battled for hours on end in the House of Representatives on behalf of the retarded and of other handicapped people and who finally won the fight after everybody was sure it was a hopeless effort. Did he do this because he is a politician or because he is a man with a purpose and the determination to stick with it?


Lest you feel that I am shouting for more action just for action's sake, that I am asking that we storm forward without really any place to go, let me specify some of the areas where I feel we are falling behind from lack of determined push.


It was nearly 100 years ago that Dr. Samuel Howe, the first superintendent of this country's first institution for the retarded, now the Fernald School in Massachusetts, decided that he would do well to separate the retarded residents of his institution into three groups in accordance with the severity of their handicap. After the introduction of Binet's intelligence test early in this century, a new seemingly scientific basis was provided for this three-way classification. Ever since then the terms "moron," "imbecile," and "idiot" have been considered as clearly delineated groupings of the retarded, and while in the early 1950s we substituted the words "marginally independent," "semidependent," and "totally dependent," to this day our institutional facilities and many of our community services consider this an adequate basis for planning.


Thus when it comes to assigning mentally retarded children and adults to services and facilities, the mental age is still taken as a determining factor in spite of the fact that studies in this country and in Europe have shown very clearly both that there can be a distinct upward change in the rating of the mentally retarded person who is subject to favorable, stimulating environment and training and also that the mental age of a mentally retarded person frequently shows such a spread between his various abilities as to be an unreliable factor in placement. Yet over and over again we stymie the potential growth and maturation of the retarded by limiting their program to our narrow expectations.


In the early 1950s when the educators looked for a basis for what appeared to be a needed differentiation between school programs for the mentally retarded, the terms "trainable" and "educable" were introduced and seemed to serve the purpose well. But practice has moved ahead and today this sharp dividing line -- identified usually by an I.Q. figure -- no longer fits our expanding knowledge. We see new, rather fluid groupings of upper and lower trainables and upper and lower educables. Can one say that this is just "playing with words" when their use provokes tensions and misunderstandings in many of our communities and states, and conveys a basically wrong concept of the problem with which we deal?

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