Mental Retardation – Treatment and Education

HISTORICALEarly records tell of Spartan parents exposing their handicapped offspring to the elements to perish. Few other accounts are available, but by the Middle Ages the retarded were exploited as fools or jesters. The Protestant Reformation found the retarded suspected of being possessed with the devil. The common treatment was “to beat the devil out of them.”Despite the poor treatment afforded the retarded, the churches of Europe from the thirteenth century on began to systematically provide asylums for the less fortunate members of society. No treatment or education was provided, but sanctuary was available from the cruel and competitive society.Prior to 1800 the prevalent belief was that retardation was inherited and consequently not treatable. In 1800 Jean Itard, a French physician, began working with the “wild boy of Aveyron.” This boy, captured in the forests of Aveyron, was diagnosed as severely retarded. Itard believed that training and practice could reverse some of the effects of retardation. His efforts produced marked changes in the boy’s behavior. While the boy never achieved the ability to talk or live independently, this was the beginning of treatment and education for retarded persons.In 1850 Edward Seguin, a student of Itard, arrived in the United States. Having expanded Itard’s work, Seguin opened residential schools for the retarded. His complex, systematic sequence of training made him recognized as an international leader in the field. By 1900 residential schools were established throughout the country. These schools were intended as training schools, dedicated to curing mental retardation. But cure did not occur, and the nature of these schools has radically changed. Rather than attempting a cure, they now emphasize the enhancement of social competence, personal adequacy, and occupational skills.In 1912 Maria Montessori, a student of Seguin, opened her schools for training the retarded. She developed a system of self-teaching that trains through the senses. In 1914 Charles Scott Berry began a teacher training program in Lapeer, Michigan. Soon after, the first college course on mental retardation was offered at what is now Eastern Michigan University.CURRENT TRENDSThe movement from viewing retardation as purely hereditary to purely environmental has led to a contemporary position that views it as usually the result of the interaction of both these factors. Treatment focuses on training in personal skills to help an individual reach the highest possible level attainable for the deficiency.One important trend in recent work with the retarded has related to the concept of normalization or mainstreaming. This refers to the right of retarded individuals to participate in normal activities. Such activities include privacy, dignity, liberty, the right to engage in loving relationships, and marriage. Special classrooms, although designed to provide homogeneous groupings to enhance manageable training, specialized curricula that would be in line with the interest of the group, and special training needs for teachers, have often been seen as dumping grounds and discriminatory.In 1965 the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided special programs of assistance to disadvantaged and handicapped children in the United States. In 1969, 14 regional instructional materials centers were developed to provide ready access to valid materials and information.The provision of free public education for all mentally retarded citizens within the context of as natural an environment as feasible was mandated by passage of Public Law 94-142 and Section 502 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The presumption is that society is obligated to support efforts to integrate retarded individuals into the fabric of the community. Mainstreaming attempts to reduce the discriminatory aspect of being retarded.The implications of these laws for education are drastic. Free education is provided, even if it means special schooling. The least restrictive environment allows a retarded person to study in regular schools if possible. It is necessary for public schools to make allowances for handicaps, with facilities for wheelchairs or other devices. These requirements have given retarded persons an opportunity for normal education and interaction in society. Special education is provided for the more severe cases where participation in regular classrooms is not possible. In both cases yearly plans specify what is to be taught. This reduces the possibility of ignoring the children and reverting to minimal training.Likewise, more adequate living situations are provided. Rather than dumping children into institutions, it is mandated that more normal housing be provided. While institutionalization is necessary for some retarded persons, due to the severity of retardation or specific problems involved, these persons are to receive normal treatment as much as possible. Otherwise, group homes, foster homes, nursing homes, even support in one’s own home are provided. Residential facilities are designed to be as colorful, warm, and friendly as a typical home.Where possible, vocational training is given. Providing a means of earning an income gives retarded persons a sense of achievement and worth. It enhances self-esteem to be in a work situation and accomplish a task.Regular psychological assessments are also required. These occur naturally in normal schools, where academic advance is a primary means of assessment. Since retarded persons learn slower, more regular assessments are needed to verify the strengths, determine if there are other underlying problems, and provide direction for educational plans.

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