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The Story of Intellectual DisabilityReview - The Story of Intellectual Disability
An Evolution of Meaning, Understanding, and Public Perception
by Michael L. Wehmeyer (Editor)
Brookes Publishing, 2013
Review by Robert Lewis Henry
Aug 26th 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 35)

There is any number of ways that one can reflect on the plight of those with intellectual disabilities.  After all, the term 'disability' is a negative one that ignores the 'abilities' of individuals with low IQ's, language deficits and other specific criteria associated within the spectrum.  This suggests that in virtue of understanding intellectual disabilities, there is more than meets the eye.  And yet, the identification of, approach towards and treatment for those with intellectual disabilities has drastically changed over the years.  Addressing this, Michael L. Wehmeyer, in his book "The Story of Intellectual Disability: An Evolution of Meaning, Understanding and Public Perception" examines the historical development of social, scientific and institutional treatment and perception of intellectual disability. 

Wehmeyer begins by stressing the 'multi-dimensionality' of human functioning.  Shifting the focus from mental capacity to environmental needs to function successfully, Wehmeyer emphasizes the modern and most current models of intellectual disability as contrasted by the older and traditional ones; as they framed intellectual disability in terms of an 'inner' deficiency.  These newer perspectives have contributed in informing public policies on intellectual disabilities, as in, the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities, their participation in society, autonomy as individuals, physical/material/emotional well-being, inclusion, accessibility to pursuing their own ideas of success, emotional well-being and personal development.  In this, Wehmeyer cogently and thoroughly assesses and presents modern initiatives and future expectations of public policies concerning intellectual disabilities.    

However, in spite of these goals, the history of intellectual disability, according to Wehmeyer, is riddled with obscurity, confusion and in many cases harmful ideas concerning such individuals.  The author traces its ancient history back to early hominid species, such as Neanderthal, finding examples of compassion for the disabled.  For instance, the skull of a Neanderthal man, Shanidar 1, clearly demonstrates significant head trauma, probably resulting in blindness and other impairments, and yet the individual lived 35-45 years in spite of this; suggesting a social compassion for disability.  And yet, in many early agrarian cultures, as in those of ancient Mesopotamia, disabled individuals were often labeled as being judgments of God against humanity.  But not all ancient societies held negative views on the disabled, in spite of the eugenics of Sparta and Seneca's mocking of them.  Ultimately ancient and classical societies' perspectives are mixed, meaning it is impossible to identify a specific mood concerning them.

Advancing from ancient and classical periods, Wehmeyer briefly describes the Medieval sentiment towards the disabled; which is nothing more than how the individual could contribute in a community as opposed to any mental assessments.  This is not to say that physicians and philosophers of the time were not aware of intellectual disability.  Comments on the 'idiot,' by the likes of Moses Maimonides and others, either equated intellectual disability with insanity or some such malady.  Building through the Renaissance was literature tackling the subject of the 'idiot' appealing to crude or pseudo-scientific observations.  These, Wehmeyer tells us, are carried over into the nineteenth century, which saw a dramatic shift from the traditional identification of idiocy, to their treatment; much of which involved institutionalization. 

Terminology shifted as well from 'idiot' to 'mental deficiency' or 'imbecile,' but segregation from society through institutionalization was the trend.  Sadly, these institutions were under funded and poorly run, rampant with abuses and more importantly ignoring human rights and further research into treatment and understanding of the phenomenon.  Wehmeyer spends a great deal of time on this period as well as on later periods he identifies as the modern era, parent advocacy movement and self-advocacy movement.  In these, he points out the shift from the institution to home care, as pressured by parent advocacy and self-advocacy groups, formed as an organic, grassroots understanding of intellectual disabilities broaden.  Figures such as Pearl Buck, Ginger Rogers and even president John F. Kennedy helped promote humane public policies and research projects tailored to a society awakening to the reality of intellectual disability.

While Wehmeyer's book successfully captures the history of intellectual disability, it failed to present a philosophical foundation of intelligence and knowledge.  Though in all fairness, the scope of the text is to illustrate the history of intellectual disability.  But, a story of intellectual disability should include a discussion on the question of intelligence and knowledge from a philosophical and scientific perspective.  In spite of this, 'The Story of Intellectual Disability' by Michael L. Wehmeyer, is a refreshingly vibrant presentation of intellectual disability throughout the ages.     

 

© 2014 Robert Lewis Henry

 

My name is Robert Lewis Henry and I am the author of apologetic and academic material. I have also enjoyed a career as a ghost writer for several publications. I received my BA in Philosophy in 2005 and attended graduate school at Vermont College.  I have also contributed to various academic research projects, collaborating on graduate level papers (theses and dissertations) on religion and religious subjects.  I am the author of "Epistemic Justification: Should it be viewed as a Metaepistemic process."


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