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Toward Human Rights For The Mentally Retarded: A Challenge To Social Action

Creator: Gunnar Dybwad (author)
Date: May 1969
Source: Friends of the Samuel Gridley Howe Library and the Dybwad Family

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-*Address to the Social Work Division, American Association on Mental Deficiency, San Francisco, California, May, 1969.-


-**Professor of Human Development, The Florence Heller Graduate School for Advanced Studies in Social Welfare, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts 02154-


At last year's Social Work Luncheon, Dr. Stanley P. Davies -1- who better than anyone qualifies for the title Elder Statesman in our field, presented a masterful, sweeping survey of the historical development of social work's role in mental retardation. For those who were ready to listen for a challenge to action, he left a weighty message with the statement that "The Mentally Retarded are not the cause for our social ills, -- our social ills are the cause of mental retardation." Some of you may argue that this ignores the clearly biological causation of some of our cases but no one can dispute that within the context of Dr. Davies' remarks even there the social impact, the social consequences loom much larger in significance than causative biological facets.


But perhaps Dr. Davies' message can best be circumscribed by citing the change in title of his book, undoubtedly social work's first major contribution to this field. Originally entitled "Social Control of the Mentally Deficient", the book's later edition was changed to "The Mentally Retarded in Society."


With your permission, I would like to continue where Dr. Davies left off and try to discuss with you some of the action implications which present themselves today to social workers in the field of mental retardation in general and specifically to those working in residential facilities, in the light of the recent draft statement of the revised Standards for Social Service Departments in Institutions for the Retarded, just presented to our Division for consideration.


The theme of the AAMD Conference this year is "Social Issues and Social Action." It is a challenging topic and one to which all of us are ready to respond, and the draft document appears to fall well in line.


In its first section, entitled Philosophy, is set forth that "The social worker will decide in each problem situation whether his attention needs to be directed toward internal difficulties experienced by the individual, toward the process of social interaction, toward the relevant environment, or some combination of all three. Intervention in order to be effective needs to go beyond the maintenance of the status quo. Changes may be desirable in social organizations and institutions as well as in individual and family functioning."


In section IV, entitled Indirect Services, the second paragraph reads as follows:


"Social service engages in appropriate activities to see to it that its policies, plans and administration lead to the realization of its goals in the most effective and efficient manner possible. It contributes its particular expertise to the making of policy, the planning and the administration of the residential facility as a whole. It engages in evaluation of its own programs and those of the residential facility and fosters timely program innovations and development."


Let me say here in all sincerity that last Spring I most likely would have been quite content with these formulations. Here were certainly all the words I had come to accept as beacons toward a more adequate recognition of broad social issues and the action pattern required to meet them. But then something happened to me last fall -- I encountered for the first time as university teacher, a group of the young social work students. Those of you who heard Vice-Chancellor Billingsley yesterday will remember his reference to the new dynamism young people have brought to our universities. Perhaps I can best compare their first impact with a sudden breeze coming through an open window and blowing one's papers about, annoyingly disturbing the orderly process of one's accustomed daily work. One hears from those young students slogans such as "lack of relevance" -- "advocacy" -- "establishment" -- "rights" -- "protest action", which sound quite familiar and one wonders at first what all the noise is really about. But then, lo and behold, one discovers that far from "sloganeering" these young people are trying to communicate to us not just their concern, their growing discontent with what they see on the social scene, but also their grim determination to veer away from our traditional ways of doing things which they consider ineffectual, toward some new action patterns which to them have promise of coming at least closer to the mark. They are not so much seeking to create conflict as they are seeking to confront effectively the existing conflict situations which we have tended to avoid. Their allegiance does not lie with the profession -- they want to relate directly to the people in need, and feel they have common cause with them against an establishment which they think is as eager to suppress their motivation as it is to keep the client in a state of dependency.

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