D&I Series Read more: History of the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities | BU today

Academic and author Michael Wehmeyer will discuss how disability has been organized and understood in society

What was life like for a person with an intellectual disability 100 or 200 years ago? How has it changed and what does it look like today?

According to Michael L. Wehmeyer, distinguished professor at the University of Kansas Ross and Marianna Beach and president of special education and an expert in educating and supporting youth and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the struggle to create systems Support, accommodations and self-advocacy for such people has changed dramatically from the 1800s to today. But knowing this story is only half the battle. “We run the risk of repeating the sins of the past and failing to understand the full humanity and dignity of people with intellectual disabilities,” Wehmeyer said.

He will discuss the long and winding road to the defense and recognition of people with intellectual disabilities in a virtual conference entitled “History of the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities” today at 3:30 pm, the last in the Learn more series from BU Diversity and inclusion, this year exploring disability and the impact of ableism.

The author, co-author or publisher of 45 books, including the widely used manual Exceptional Lives: Special Education in Today’s Schools (Merill / Prentice Hall, 2020), Wehmeyer has devoted most of his career to learning and advocating for people with intellectual disabilities, in schools, the law and society in general. His speech today will not only provide a general overview of the history of the treatment of these people, but will examine, more specifically, how much of the disability rights movement has occurred in Massachusetts. “My job for over 30 years now has been to focus on how we can enable and promote self-determination for people with disabilities in general,” he says. “I’m an educator, so it’s in the context of schools, and over the last decade it’s really been about how we can allow and not exclude students with disabilities.”

BU today spoke with Wehmeyer prior to today’s interview. This interview has been condensed and edited.


with Michael Wehmeyer

BU today: What are we talking about when we talk about people with intellectual disabilities?

Wehmeyer: People with a developmental disability are people who need extraordinary support to be successful in doing many things that others can do. They have been linked to impaired cognitive functioning, so people with intellectual disabilities often have limitations in cognitive functions. Historically, this has only been framed by a negative, by what people cannot do. Hopefully we are entering an era where these limitations can be accommodated by modifications or by supports. People with intellectual disabilities can function successfully in all aspects of life with the right support.

BU today: How has the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities evolved over time in the United States, and more specifically here in Boston?

Wehmeyer: The difficulty of trying to sum up 170 years of history in a 50 minute speech is that you have these details that you want to reach, and sometimes you lose sight of the big picture. In general, the history of intellectual disability begins in the United States in the mid-19th century. One of the men who was instrumental in implementing the early adaptation efforts to support people with intellectual disabilities was Samuel Gridley Howe, who was the principal of the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. [the school moved to nearby Watertown in 1912]. These people were in hospices and left to fend for themselves. There was no education or accreditation, so people like Howe and Dorothea Dix [a 19th-century advocate for the mentally ill] become activists.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a rapid growth of institutions and schools which began in this way of adaptation, but thanks to a number of forces they became medicalized warehouses which entered the It was in the late 1800s. These were places to place people with intellectual disabilities to protect them from society. Then, during the first two decades of the 20th century, attention shifted due to the American eugenic era and the science’s new understandings of genetics. Attention then shifted from protecting people by institutionalizing them to protecting society from them by institutionalizing them.

Over the next 50 years, there was massive growth in institutions, until the early 1960s when parents began to coalesce. So we are going through an era of community development and starting to reduce the number of institutions. While there were some really important achievements around people and education, until the end of the 20th century they were still focused on deficits, while at the beginning of the 20th century they were seen as deficits. threats to society.

During the last two decades of the 20th century and throughout this century, a movement of self-help and self-advocacy has emerged. People with physical and intellectual disabilities began to demand access and new ways of thinking about disability. In general, the focus has shifted from a developmental disability as a problem in a person to examining the interaction between the person and the environment in which that person wants to function and ways to improve their personal abilities. , modify this environment and provide support.

So the disability in these movements turns into a simple understanding of the gap between what a person can do and what they want to do. If we could close this gap, the impairment that led to the disability would not go away, but disability to some extent becomes moot in this context. Of course, you also have the development of a disability identity that is consistent with many identity movements – people embracing their diversity and a sense of pride emerging. We still have a long way to go, but we are going.

BU today: What would you like people to know or take into consideration when discussing social justice and advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities?

Wehmeyer: We need to understand that for people with intellectual disabilities, the same issues that drove virtually all civil rights movements relate. So much about the history of disability is about people’s ableism, how they think about disability and people with disabilities as being different, and that difference is always less. Separating is not equal. The primary legislation supporting equal access and equal rights, such as the Disability Education Act and the United States Disability Act, is grassroots civil rights law. Self-advocacy and self-help movements – these are civil rights movements. It is about the right of all to live a self-determined life without discrimination based on ableism and perceptions of disability. I think there is more intersectionality that includes disability as a part of that now, and I think it will increase because we have really strong people with disabilities telling us that over and over again.

Discussion of the BU’s Learn More series on Diversity and Inclusion “History of the Treatment of People with Developmental Disabilities”, featuring Michael Wehmeyer, today is October 12 at 3:30 p.m. Register now here virtually attend.

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