History of People with Developmental Disabilities


Disability means that a body part works differently than a person who doesn’t have a disability. The term developmental disability means that the disability happened between birth and age 22, and had some kind of impact to a child’s growth, such as in walking, talking, learning, eating, or caring for themselves. Some developmental disabilities such as autism involve cognitive characteristics; other developmental disabilities such as spina bifida are physical in nature; cerebral palsy is a developmental disability that may have cognitive characteristics, physical characteristics with mobility or muscle control, or both.  Today in America, there is a 75 to 90  percent unemployment rate for people with developmental disabilities because others think that disability is a barrier to success and therefore, people with developmental disabilities are often not given the tools necessary to enter the workforce.

Because people with developmental disabilities have traditionally grown up in hidden environments and behind the typically segregated walls of society (such as special education rooms, group homes and residential institutions), they often have had very little communication or interaction with the outside world, and when they do, people without disabilities frequently don’t know how to act. Another contributing factor is that sometimes people don’t give much consideration to the needs of those whose disability makes them have very limited or no oral communication at all. As a  result, the objective of this website is highly relevant to the world of knowledge about social change communications because it illustrates how people with developmental disabilities use smartphones, tablets, and social media as communications tools to change and combat previously held negative perceptions of them held by others to improve their stance in society.

Brief History of People with Developmental Disabilities

Greeks and Romans of ancient times viewed perfection as a blessing from the gods, and in contrast, illness, disability and other natural conditions were seen as punishment from the same gods. Aristotle promoted a social hierarchy in which upper class males represented the first level of perfection; women represented the first level of “deformity,” with children, slaves, and people with disabilities lower and lower down the ladder of humankind.

The Christian bible has numerous references that imply that people with disabilities will be “cured” based on the depth of their faith. Matthew Chapter 11, verse 5, for example, reports that by following Jesus “the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear.” For two thousand years, this reference to faith has also developed a contrasting perspective in many people, that the reason a person with a disability isn’t “cured” is because their faith isn’t strong enough.

The Roman Catholic Church became a social presence through its establishment of hospitals and orphanages. Children with disabilities were often abandoned to the care of the church, which led to the practice of grouping people with disabilities together in “their own” facility. In Elizabethan England, churches were ordered to collect taxes from parishioners and give the money to the government to pay for institutions where people with disabilities were kept so they wouldn’t “pollute society.”

The first American government payments to people with disabilities occurred with injured soldiers returning from the Revolutionary War. In agrarian societies, people with disabilities had worked on the family farm – but with mechanization and factory work that came with the Industrial Revolution, most people with disabilities couldn’t work fast enough for mass production and were excluded from the workforce.

Thomas Gallaudet opened the American Asylum for the Deaf in 1817, the first of many schools established specifically for students with disabilities. A general approach was that children with disabilities could be part of the workforce and lead productive lives if they first received training at residential schools. But the training curriculum was set aside after enrollments grew to the point that all administrators could do was provide custodial care.

The first special education class in the United States was opened in 1896, in Rhode Island. By 1923 there were approximately 34,000 students enrolled in special education classes in various states. Space for the separate classrooms became a problem, so education of students with disabilities was mostly moved to become a function of institutions. Overcrowding and lack of true educational services continued to be a problem.

After World War II, families across the country had a general feeling to make life better for their families, including their family members that had disabilities. Parents worked hard to transform the world of people with disabilities from one of separate, segregated facilities and activities to one of inclusion and active participation in life. Over time, this included passage of federal laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.


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