Historical Attitudes toward Intellectual Disability

Edward Seguin, a French physician and educator of the 1830s, used the word idiot (literally "ignorant one") to label certain "feeble-minded" individuals. Leaving a successful professional career in France, Seguin moved to America in 1848, settling in the state of Ohio. There he started another medical practice and opened the first institutional facilities for retarded people. Seguin advocated a humane, healthy environment where children with intellectual disabilities could be given special support. He established small facilities, consisting of 150-200 children at most, located in the countryside where the air was fresh and healthy food was available.

Who was Seguin? What were his facilities like? What reversals occurred within the next 50 years?

Unfortunately, Seguin's ideal was not upheld. Within 50 years institutions for the retarded were gloomy, depressing places. They were overcrowded, they included adolescents and adults as well as children, and they usually kept their inmates for life. Gone was the ideal of helping people with supportive care in a healthy environment, so they could be returned to the community. In its place was something like a prison system. Country locations originally chosen "for pure air and fresh milk" now served a different purpose. They safely segregated the mentally deficient from a general public that did not wish to be near them (Crissey, 1975).


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