Social and Political Controversies Associated with Intellectual Disabilities
As it became more widely understood that intellectual disabilities (intellectual developmental disorder, formerly mental retardation) resulted from biological causes, rather than spiritual acts of retribution, the nature of prejudice against people with intellectual disability shifted from an attitude of active rejection towards an attitude of compassionate rejection, or patronizing over-protection. Author Wolf Wolfensberger points out that at a certain point, people began considering individuals with intellectual disabilities as objects of pity, or people with an illness requiring treatment, rather than as outright abominations. These attitudes were perhaps an improvement over the active disdain and persecution of previous centuries, but continued to perpetuate damaging stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities. People with these disabilities were considered either unresponsive to help (and thus simple objects of charity or a burden upon society), or they were considering ill and requiring treatment. This latter view seems charitable enough until you consider that much of the 'treatment' consisted of quarantine-style segregation from mainstream society, and that the label of "patient" was in its own right fairly disempowering suggesting that people with these disabilities were more limited and helpless than most are. When people with intellectual disabilities are regarded with pity, they are not challenged to develop their strengths and abilities and thus do not reach their full potential. Unfortunately, people with intellectual disabilities are still regarded with pity even today.
Another social role applied to people with intellectual disabilities, and the most romantic of the lot, is the role of "eternal children" or "holy innocents." This role conception is similar to the "objects of pity" conception and shares the same faults, namely that when this view is widely shared, people with these disabilities cannot develop their strengths and abilities because they are not challenged to develop them. Instead, they are considered perpetual children, and they may be treated with benign neglect, or paternalistic over-protection. Under this view, persons with intellectual disabilities are seen as incapable of becoming contributing members of society and the expectations for their development and growth are pessimistic. This perception looks to the individual as one who needs protection from society rather than someone who is capable of contributing to society. Furthermore, the holy innocent is not held accountable for his or her actions.
Legal and Social Policy for People with Intellectual Disabilities
As the public became better informed about intellectual disabilities and the harsh conditions this population has endured, momentum for social and political reform began to develop. The 1960s was a decade of great social change exemplified by an emerging tolerance for, and acceptance of, all persons with disabilities, including intellectual disabilities. In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act provided some legal protection for people with disabilities. In 1963, the Community Mental Health Act was passed (also known as Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act), which provided the basis for the construction of numerous community-based outpatient treatment centers where recently deinstitutionalized mentally ill persons and persons with intellectual disablities individual could go for assistance. Then in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed which heightened social awareness and improved the quality of life for individuals with disabilities, including individuals with intellectual disabilities. In October 2010 President Barrack Obama signed into law a bill known as Rosa's Law that requires the terms "mental retardation" and" mentally retarded" to be stricken from federal health, education, and labor policy and replaced with the terms "intellectual disability" and "individual with an intellectual disability."
Presently, all citizens of the United States, including citizens with intellectual disabilities, share the same inalienable rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. These rights include the right to vote, to exercise freedom of speech, and the right to marry (to mention but a few). In recent years, these rights have been interpreted to mean that all individuals with intellectual disabilities, even those with severe intellectual disabilities, have the right to live and to be educated in the least restrictive environment possible.
In the past, individuals with intellectual disabilities were abused, neglected, and exploited. Today, in the United States, they have the right to be protected from such mistreatment. They also have the right to equal housing and equal employment opportunities with comfortable living conditions and fair wages for work. They also retain the right to privacy, with confidential medical records. If they are to be committed against their will, they have the right to be notified with details of this legal proceeding at least ten days before the hearing. Persons with intellectual disablities have the right to an attorney in this context, even if they cannot afford to pay for one. They have the right to present witnesses on their behalf, as well as the right to an appeal. If they are committed against their will, they have the right to be placed in the least restrictive environment appropriate for meeting their needs and abilities. It is not a perfect world, of course, and these rights are not always perfectly enforced, but they are there for the enforcing.
The social and technological changes of prior centuries have made possible a new conception of what it means to be a person with an intellectual disability in the twenty-first century. This is not to say that the stigma has vanished because it has not; these sorts of social changes occur very slowly. Nonetheless, persons with intellectual disabilities should be considered valuable people, worthy of dignity and respect, capable of growing and learning, and desiring the same things that ordinary citizens do: meaningful work, a comfortable and secure home, good friends, and a loving family. When provided with proper supports, skills training, and education, these goals are within their reach. With this perspective, people with intellectual disablities population are being integrated into many mainstream schools, workplaces, and into their communities, as they enjoy their lives as productive citizens.