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Treatment Of The Mentally Retarded - A Cross-National View

Creator: Gunnar Dybwad (author)
Date: June 1968
Source: Friends of the Samuel Gridley Howe Library and the Dybwad Family

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-* This discussion of Robert B. Edgerton's paper, Mental Retardation in Non-Western Societies -- Toward A Cross-Cultural Perspective of Incompetence, was presented at the Conference on Socio-Cultural Aspects of Mental Retardation, Peabody College, Nashville, Tenn., June 1968 and will be included as a chapter in; H. C. Haywood (ed.) Social-Cultural Aspects of Mental Retardation. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, in press.


-** Professor of Human Development, The Florence Heller Graduate School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.-


Dr. Edgerton has provided in his paper a very exhaustive compilation of information on mental retardation among primitive men. I share his regret that hardly any information has been collected on a systematic basis, and since civilization is rapidly extending its outreach, the urgency of research efforts in this particular area cannot be overstressed.


In order to broaden the base of our discussion to some extent, I would like, first of all, to introduce additional materials from some developing countries. I am using this term because I question the practice of equating "non-western" or "non-European" with underdevelopment, and because the term "society" connotes a unitary structure which does not exist as soon as we move beyond the confines of the anthropologist's paradise, the small South Sea islands.


In reality we still have in certain European countries areas of gross cultural underdevelopment. On the other hand, in some non-European countries typically viewed as areas of extreme deprivation in terms of food, clothing, housing, health and education, one finds urban centers with highly developed health, welfare and education services. As far as mental retardation is concerned, one of the most striking contrasts is presented by Brazil where Rio de Janeiro and particularly Sao Paulo are metropolitan areas with some outstanding services for the mentally retarded, yet in northern Brazil there are regions of the most extreme deprivation and starvation. While in India mental retardation developments are of more recent origin, it is safe to predict that in the near future one will find there a situation rather similar to that in Brazil.


Throughout the world very considerable progress has been made during the last decade or two in the area of mental retardation and one of the main forces in this advance has been a most interesting social phenomenon, the organized effort of parents of the mentally retarded, efforts that now can well be described as a worldwide movement.


One can only hope that in the near future, while the raw data are still obtainable, a social anthropologist will undertake a study to determine the factors that were at work when following World War II literally around the globe in countries large and small, developed and developing, parents began to rise up demanding proper attention to their retarded children's problems. (1) One point is clearly established: There was no organization, public or private, which stimulated or fostered the almost explosive force of this movement. With but few exceptions the efforts were indigenous to the various countries as far as the job of organizing was concerned. Now there exists the International League of Societies for the Mentally Handicapped with parent sponsored member societies in nearly fifty countries from Malaysia to Ecuador, from Yugoslavia to the Philippines.

(1) Dybwad, Rosemary F., The Widening Role of Parent Organizations Throughout the World. Mental Retardation, 1,6, December 1963.


Documentary evidence from the various countries tends to demonstrate an astonishing similarity not only in the motivation of the founding members of these groups but also with regard to their goals and methods. While this matter certainly deserves to be studied more in detail, all indications point to certain basic factors common to the experience of having and caring for a retarded child, be it in Indonesia, the United States, Spain or Poland, even though there are striking individual differences in the response of parents to this experience -- from extreme grief and anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, leading either to rejection or overprotection of the child on the one hand, to a positive acceptance on the other hand, resulting in a resolve to help this child and others of similar handicap. Obviously the manifestation of these varying parental reactions is influenced by prevailing cultural factors but the early history of the parent movement in many countries clearly shows how the initiating and organizing group proceeded in the face of overwhelming societal obstacles and tabus -sic-.


One significant phenomenon in this context is the transformation of parental reaction to what has been considered a very personal experience into a "consumer group" response. A recent report from India (2) states "one sure thing is that parents (of mentally retarded children) seek help as never before," while from Nigeria comes this comment (3) "The clinic was founded primarily to help emotionally disturbed children, but the pressure from parents to do something for their retarded children, most of whom had been sent away from ordinary schools where they had failed to profit by standard methods of teaching, has been such that the mentally handicapped children had to be taken."

(2) Personal communication of Kamela V, Nimbkar, Editor, Journal of Rehabilitation in Asia, March 1968.

(3) Ransome-Kuti, O., Lagos Institute of Child Health, unpublished memorandum, February 1967.

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