Author addresses history of intellectual disability in America

Wed, 09/25/2013

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LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor has produced a pair of books examining how intellectual disability and its treatment and perceptions have been viewed throughout history as well as a review of positive psychology as it pertains to disability..

Michael Wehmeyer, professor of special education, director of the Kansas University Center on Developmental Disabilities and associate director of the Beach Center on Disability, has edited “The Story of Intellectual Disability: An Evolution of Meaning, Understanding and Public Perception” as well as The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Disability. The latter reviews original research on positive psychology and provides a foundation for future research in the area.

"The Story of Intellectual Disability"

It is no secret that people with intellectual disability have not received optimum treatment throughout the years. This book explores how these individuals have been treated, how they lived and cultural events that helped shape understanding of disability and foster change.

“There are no records of people with what we would call intellectual disability until the Middle Ages for several reasons,” Wehmeyer said. “First, there weren’t many records for people other than kings and queens. In about the 1700s you see contracts coming up for who would receive the property of ‘fools,’ as they were often referred to, and in the 1800s it shows up increasingly in medical works.”

Wehmeyer has had a longtime interest in the history of disability and contributed many photos, pieces of popular culture and artifacts from his personal collection for use in the book. Contributing authors highlight stories throughout historical eras of varying means of support, the institutional movement and its fall, disability and law and important social events that changed attitudes about disability.

Some of the vignettes illustrate actual responses to disability that took place in the United States, including forced sterilization of individuals with disability and the institutionalization of “idiots, morons and imbeciles,” all of which were accepted medical terms at one point or another. Contributed photos include pictures of a group of men with intellectual disability chained together to pull a cart. The picture, which was intended to show what a poor job they were doing, not only shows the abuse individuals often suffered, but illustrates that people viewed people with disabilities as not completely human and certainly not as equals.

“This book came about as a way to understand how disability has been looked at,” Wehmeyer said. “By understanding how things have been, we can learn how to move forward. Through much of history disability has been looked at as a deficit problem, or what a person can’t do. Fortunately in the last 25 to 30 years, that has begun to change.”

The book explores how social and legal changes such as the Americans With Disabilities Act have improved life for individuals with disabilities. The text also chronicles events such as a 1950 Ladies Home Journal article about famed author Pearl Buck and her daughter with an intellectual disability. It also chronicles celebrities Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, who had a daughter with Down syndrome. The stories both chronicle shifts in public opinion and can help maintain important lessons about treatment of individuals with disabilities during the rise of the institutional system.

“What stories like these did, in a lot of ways, was empower a generation,” Wehmeyer said. “Institutions had become a maintenance, warehouse-type of system. With each generation we lose memory of just how awful these institutions were, so it’s important we don’t forget.”

Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Disability

The handbook is part of a series of texts exploring numerous aspects of psychology. The book reviews existing research on positive psychology principles such as hope, optimism, resilience and how they relate to disability as well as point out where such topics are lacking to date in the field of psychology and disability research.

“In many people’s minds, positive psychology and disability are not congruous,” Wehmeyer said. “I don’t believe there is any other resource on the topic that is this comprehensive.”

Wehmeyer, a fellow with the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, also contributed to the most recent terminology and classification manual from that association for professionals working in the field of intellectual disability. The 11th edition is notable for being the first to avoid use of the phrase “mental retardation.” For the Oxford Handbook, Wehmeyer edited contributions from more than 60 experts in positive psychology and disability studies. His own research and that of colleagues at KU focus on self-determination of children, youth and adults with and without intellectual disability.



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