The care and acceptance of people with disabilities have come a long way. Today, millions of dollars go into research for care and treatment of mental disabilities, actions that were unimaginable in the ancient era. Mental disabilities and physical deformities were a source of scorn, cause for death, and subject of rejection from not only the larger society but within the family as well. Greeks and Romans considered themselves the epitome of humanity given their immense contribution to areas of importance for humans including medicine, literature, and philosophy. Any form of disability was, therefore, an anomaly that needed casting out. Christianity, following the teachings of Jesus on compassion for the less fortunate, however, brought better treatment of individuals with disabilities. Compassion for the disabled-led many to seek a deeper understanding of the causes of such disabilities, moving away from the outright rejection and casting out of the mentally, to seeking understanding and solutions to the disabilities.
The Ancient Era
The beginnings of the ancient era were some of the most basic. There were struggles with the explanation of the world, and people attributed most occurrences to higher beings or divinity. However, people later began to be rational, with attempts made in explaining the nature of the world. Among the people who attempted explaining the world were philosophers, Socrates one of the greatest among them. His main concerns were ethical questions such as the makings of a good life
For disabilities, mental disability had its first mention in 1552 BC in the Therapeutic Papyrus of Thebes. In this era dominated by Greeks and Romans, the two saw themselves as the epitome of humanity given their contribution to art, philosophy, literature, and science. Any physical deformity was therefore considered a mark of inferiority. It is for this reason that people with mental disabilities had labels such as idiots, with no thought of making their lives bearable.
The rise of Christianity, however, changed the poor treatment following Jesus’ teaching of compassion, thus stopping infanticide. Additionally, there began rational explanation to mental disability. Hippocrates debunked seizures as having physical causes rather than the assumed divine intervention. Additionally, Hippocrates rationalized that body’s care was in human hands rather than the gods. Galen developed the idea of the brain as the seat of intellect and central nervous system, and disability as being the physical and natural cause. Overall, the life of people with disabilities was horrible and meant death or low quality of life during the ancient era.
The Middle Ages, Renaissance, & Reformation 475 AD – 1500 AD
The fall of the Roman Empire and the invasion of Europe by barbarians changed life in Europe. Not much changed in the attitude towards people with disabilities. The view of them as “fools” and their use as court jesters continued, even as the idea of God began to permeate the society. While many considered them children of God, most people saw them as “different” but not normal.
The first attempt towards care came from the Roman Catholic Church that established orphanages, homes, and hospitals for the blind and aged. These became the first asylums. The care was mostly custodial, and many of the children taken in did not survive. Leprosariums became institutions for holding all deviants such as orphans, criminals, prostitutes, and madmen among others as leprosy began to disappear. For people with disabilities, there were “idiot cages” that confined them, as the townspeople used them for entertainment. The use of people with disabilities continued with the “Ship of Fools,” where captains got payment for taking people with disabilities away, later showing them off from port to port for payment.
Family and foster care for the mentally afflicted perhaps began with the Gheel shrine in Belgium in 1215. Although there was the belief that the afflicted would get cure at the shrine, operations were largely religious: the belief of a reward for doing good. Moreover, the segregation of the mentally afflicted was for economic survival even as the intellectual and cultural movement spread throughout Northern Europe. The movement, however, led to many advancements in health as well as deeper comprehension of disabilities.
17th and 18th Centuries
The 17th and 18th Centuries saw a marked change in attitude towards people with disabilities. There was a more scientific approach towards the mentally afflicted as philosophers attempted to understand human nature. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Rousseau were among the first philosophers (and Social Contract Theorists) who showed interest in understanding the balance between individual freedom and control by the government. They additionally fronted ideas that became instrumental in later approaches to mental retardation.
The period saw growth in education and treatment. It is through this time that Jacob Rodriguez Pereire developed a way to teach deaf mutes, while Valentin Hauy developed embossed prints to help the blind to read. These developments led to the idea that it was possible to educate other people with other disabilities. Jean Jacques Rousseau also developed the idea of the “noble savage” claiming that man was born free and only shackled by civilization. The idea was instrumental in the French Revolution that agitated for freedom and dignity of all.
The greatest leaps in the management of the mentally ill came from Philip Pinel’s idea of “moral management,” which advocated gentle treatment and patience for the “mentally deranged.” His method of treatment involved removing chains from patients in mental asylums and encouraged more humane treatment of the mentally ill rather than treating them as prisoners. Moreover, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard’s experiment with “Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron,” while not overly successful as hoped, proved that there was indeed the hope of improvement, with teaching and patience, for mentally retarded children. Yet even with the proof that mentally retarded children could learn, Thomas Malthus saw a concern with population growth and scarcity of food for the bulging population. He opined that it was necessary to have birth control and eliminate those that made no contribution to society. His idea is similar to the “Return on Investment Syndrome” that continues to permeate society today as it did in the ancient era.
The attitude towards mental illness has come a long way from the ancient era. The take-home here is that due to lack of an understanding of mental illness, many saw it as a punishment. The Greeks and Romans, for instance, saw this as a sign of inferiority. Moreover, it is said that individuals with mental illness had to live as undesirables cast out to fend for themselves. While it is good that some sense and explanation began during the ancient era the fact that Aristotle saw women as a road to deformity and recommended passing a law to curtail bringing up of children with deformities is alarming. Such was the disdain for disabilities that Romans treated children with disabilities as objects of scorn, humor for wealthy people, and in royal courts as court jesters. Moreover, persecution and murder in the Tiber River were a norm for blind, deaf, or mentally retarded children.
Important, however, is the eventual change in view of mental illness as pioneered by Social Contract Theorists including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Rousseau. The ideas of these theorists have become instrumental in the treatment of people with mental disabilities as well as the general societal attitude towards them. Learning about the treatment and history of people with developmental disabilities is especially eye-opening to the advancements in the field, and appreciation of the far people have come in the management of people with mental disabilities. Furthermore, although Itard’s experiment with “Victor, the Wild Boy of Aveyron,” did not produce desired results, it is heartwarming that he attempted to prove the learning ability of individuals with developmental disabilities at a time when society saw them as burdens needing elimination.
Relation to GS 420
The purpose of the course is to expose students to a wide range of human experiences for individuals with disabilities. The course additionally hopes to expose the students to the relationship that exists between societal institutions and the perception of people towards people with disabilities. The readings are apt towards these purposes as they indulge the student in a historical journey in learning the perceptions, attitudes, and history of the society towards people with developmental disabilities. The readings help students appreciate strides made by the government and society towards the protection and treatment of people with developmental disabilities. Most important, the readings allow the students to appreciate the course, given the historical lessons that it presents, relevant for use in the students’ daily lives.