A Historical Overview of the Mentally Challenged

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A Historical Overview of the Mentally Challenged

What is the definition of a mentally challenged person? Being mentally deficient is not defined as an illness or medical disorder, simply a low limit in functioning, developmental and cognitive abilities. Mentally challenged people are found in all races and cultures, and account for roughly three per cent of the global population. In contrast, a mental illness is a disease of the mind with symptoms severe enough to require psychiatric intervention (e.g. schizophrenia). There have always been mentally challenged people within our society; however they have not been easily accepted in the past. Low-functioning individuals were once looked upon as "objects" of dread, ridicule or disease, and were even thought to have been demonic or possessed. This view has changed drastically, yet there is still a lot of prejudice towards the mentally challenged and handicapped. In the United States, institutions for the mentally challenged began to appear in the eighteenth century. These institutions operated under a philosophy of treatment and training in an attempt to provide normal living conditions and work and educational opportunities for the mentally challenged and handicapped. In the beginning, institutions in the United States were not simply "dumping grounds" for unwanted or extremely dependent people; however the character of these institutions changed for the worse. One of the factors causing this change was the invention of the philosophy of eugenics in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The philosophy of eugenics combined the religious tradition of degenerationism (belief that low-functioning people were sinners) with the sciences of genetics and evolution. This philosophy resulted in all of society's evils being blamed on "bad genes." Mental deficiency, criminality and delinquency, prostitution and alcoholism were all seen as a result of defective genes. Sterilization of these "defective...
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