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Gray's Anatomy, Plate 677 (1918)
Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 677 (1918)

Intellectual Disabilities


This section contains historical articles concerning the care, treatment and education of persons with intellectual disabilities. 

During earlier periods of American history, individuals with intellectual disabilities have been categorized as “idiots,” “feebleminded,” “imbeciles,” “morons,” “cretins,”
and more recently as “mentally retarded.”  Such references to people with intellectual disabilities are offensive to modern readers; however, they are left intact on this website so as to be an accurate reflection of history, and to aid searching of primary sources.



  • A Chapter on Idiots (1854)The wearing uncertainty of many years succeeds the infancy. The ignorant notions of idiocy that prevailed before we knew even the little that we yet know of the brain, prevent the parents recognizing the state of the case. The old legal accounts of idiocy, and the old suppositions of what it is, are very unlike what they see. The child ought not, according to legal definition, to know his own name, but he certainly does; for when his own plate or cup is declared to be ready, be rushes to it. He ought not to be able, by law, "to know letters;" yet he can read, and even write, perhaps, although nobody can tell how he learned, for he never seemed to attend when taught. It was just as if his fingers and tongue went of themselves, while his mind was in the moon. Again, the law declared any body an idiot "who could not count twenty pence;" whereas this boy seems, in some unaccountable way, to know more about sums (of money and of every thing else) than any body in the family. He does not want to learn figures, his arithmetic is strong without them, and always instantaneously ready...
  • Are We Retarding The Retarded? (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.
  • Because A Father Cared (1960)Article by Margaret McDonald, appearing in The Rotarian, 1956. "But when this fine couple -- this Rotary couple, as you would call them -- found that their pretty little girl would never develop mentally, they felt that their heartache was unique, and they soon discovered that few can fathom the grief of those whose loved ones are condemned to the land of the living dead."
  • Care And Training Of Feeble-Minded Children (1887)The superintendents of American institutions for feeble-minded persons, in their session of I878, submitted the following: "Idiocy and imbecility are conditions in which there is a want of natural or harmonious development of the mental, active, and moral powers of the individual affected, usually associated with some visible defect or infirmity of the physical organization or with functional anomalies, expressed in various forms and degrees of disordered vital action. There is frequently defect or absence of one or more of the special senses, always irregular or uncertain volition, and dulness or absence of sensibility and perception."
  • Classifications Of Idiocy (1877)It should be borne in mind that the essential fact of idiocy is the mental deficiency. That the point of interest for us is the degree to which this condition can be obviated. Furthermore, it is dependent upon physical conditions, whether physiological or pathological, that are chronic or organic, -- slowly produced structural changes, when pathological, -- and so, as a rule, beyond the reach of remedial means. The sphere of these, when used in the treatment, is almost exclusively confined to ameliorating the accessory maladies.
  • Cohen, Wilbur J.: Mental Retardation LegislationOn mental retardation legislation, the second major sustained effort of the Kennedy years, Cohen operated as the servant of others. Cohen worked hard on this matter, and that was because Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was an extraordinarily driven and dedicated woman, wanted him to do so.
  • Cretins And Idiots (1858)Of those not affected by epilepsy, who are brought under instruction in childhood, from one third to one fourth may be so far improved as to become capable of performing the ordinary duties of life with tolerable fidelity and ability. They may acquire sufficient knowledge to be able to read, to write, to understand the elementary facts of geography, history, and arithmetic; they may be capable of writing a passable letter; they may acquire a sufficient knowledge of farming, or of the mechanic arts, to be able to work well and faithfully under appropriate supervision; they may attain a sufficient knowledge of the government and laws under which they live, to be qualified to exercise the electoral franchise quite as well as many of those who do exercise it; they may make such advances in morals, as to act with justice and honor toward their fellow-men, and exhibit the influence of Christianity in changing their degraded and wayward natures to purity, chastity, and holiness.
  • Defective Classes (1891)I propose the following classification of the defective classes, depending upon the three divisions of the mental faculties which are generally accepted by psychologists. Insanity and idiocy are different forms of defective intellect. Crime and vice are caused by defect of the emotions or passions. And pauperism is caused by defect of the will. Blindness and deaf-mutism are defects of the senses, requiring special forms of education, but are not defects of the mind any more than the loss of an arm or a leg. Blind or deaf people properly educated are not a burden or a danger to society, as are criminals, insane persons, or paupers. Their defects are physical, not mental, and they should not be classed with persons who have these mental defects.
  • Developing Patterns For Aid To The Aging Retarded And Their Families (1960)It is important to note in the context of our discussion here that, notwithstanding this marked trend, in most of our institutions residents of all ages are still referred to as "boys" and "girls." Yet one of the most important of the "Developing Patterns for Aid to the Aging Retarded and Their Families" I am to discuss with you tonight is the beginning recognition that the older retardate is entitled to adult status. This new insight, stemming largely from the more progressive work in community facilities for the retarded, reflects a rejection of the old cliche which termed a twenty-year-old mongoloid with an I.Q. of 40 as a "child at heart." Today we recognize that such a person is an adult with a severe mental handicap, but one who may well be capable of performing tasks of reasoning and expressing feelings considerably beyond those of the child whose "mental age" he presumably possesses....
  • Instruction Of Idiots (1849)This article written by J. G. W. appeared in a Philadelphia Quaker periodical as efforts to educate children with cognitive disabilities first started in the United States.
  • Origin Of The Treatment And Training Of Idiots (1856)The idiot wishes for nothing, he wishes only to remain in his vacuity. To treat successfully this ill will, the physician wills that the idiot should act, and think himself, of himself and finally by himself. The incessant volition of the moral physician urges incessantly the idiot out of his idiocy into the sphere of activity, of thinking, of labor, of duty and of affectionate feelings; such is the moral treatment. The negative will of the idiot being overcome, scope and encouragement being given to his first indications of active volition, the immoral tendencies of this new power being repressed, his mixing with the busy and living word is to be urged on at every opportunity.
  • Public Aid For The Feeble-Minded (1889)This entry was a presentation by Mrs. George Brown at the Sixteenth Annual Session of The National Conference Of Charities And Correction, 1889. "In an assemblage like this Conference, it must be an axiomatic proposition that the State should educate all its dependent children. It is not charity: it is simply providing for those of its own household...The question, then, is, in what respects must this provision for the feeble-minded differ from that given to others?"
  • Public School Classes For Mentally Deficient Children (1904)Presentation by Lydia Gardiner Chase at the National Conference Of Charities And Correction, 1904. "Perhaps none have been more misunderstood than the mentally deficient. Through neglect, these children will degenerate into the ranks of the defectives and the delinquents; through individual training, some can be saved for the social body and the condition of all can be improved."
  • Some Abnormal Characteristics Of Idiots And The Methods Adopted In Obviating Them (1883)What is called idiocy is a mental state. This is true, no matter what our idea may be of the nature of mind. It is true, whatever may be the physiological or pathological conditions associated with it. Thus, when we speak of idiocy or imbecility, of fatuity or feeble-mindedness, we refer to grades and shades of mental states below the normal standard of human intelligence.
  • Syracuse State Institution For Feeble-Minded Children: (1916)"The State of New York thus became the first one in the United States to make separate and special provision for the feeble-minded. Two years later the Legislature provided funds for the erection of permanent buildings on a site in Syracuse donated by philanthropic citizens."
  • Training Schools - And Civilian Public Service (1944)Article by Stephen Angell in The Reporter, 1944. The Civilian Public Service (CPS) was set up to provide conscientious objectors in the United States an alternative service to military service during World War II.
  • What Social Work Has To Offer In The Field Of Mental Retardation (1960)Social work is making a contribution to the field of mental retardation but social workers are not giving the substantial services which are needed and which they have the competence to give. Along with other professions and the general public, social work failed for many years to give focused attention to the mentally retarded as a group in the population which needed their services. Lacking knowledge of ways to help the severely and moderately retarded, the social workers helped parents place their children if that seemed the best solution at that time. Other social services were given, but often they were fragmentary and somewhat isolated. What amounted to neglect rose more from frustration and lack of knowledge than from indifference.
  • Wilbur, Hervey B. - In Memoriam (1886)Wide as the institutional field is, it did not engross all his powers. Everything of a scientific nature, social or practical, was of interest to him, and the excellent library he gathered shows the breadth of his intellectual tastes. His sympathies embraced the wide field of humanity, and no human being was too lowly or degraded for his notice. To him the humblest of his neighbors came for advice and aid in their petty troubles, sure that he would accord them both.