Robert M. Hodapp
Elisabeth M. Dykens
Mental retardation has historically been an area of intense interest to scientists, practitioners, and policy makers. Today as well, scientists are making important new discoveries, fostering hope that certain forms of mental retardation might be eliminated over the next few decades. Practitioners are excited by the participation of persons with mental retardation into the “mainstream,” where these individuals are increasingly being treated as fully participating members of their societies. Policy makers too have contributed to this new era, passing laws that mandate educational and service rights, as well as an end to discrimination in employment and other areas.
To get a sense of just how far persons with mental retardation have advanced, some brief history is useful. Like the disciplines of social work, education, nursing, and medicine, the study and treatment of mental retardation essentially began in the mid-1800s (Scheerenberger, 1983). In the early 1850s, Samuel Gridley Howe founded the first public and Harvey Wilbur the first private training schools for persons with mental retardation in the United States. Quickly thereafter, facilities were started throughout the country; by 1890, 20 of these facilities were opened, in 15 states (Haskell, 1944). As originally operated, these facilities served as warm, humane “substitute families” for persons with mental retardation. These facilities—and the professionals who ran them—opened the way for the field's modern service delivery system.
In 1876, these training school directors met to form a society that was later to become the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), the main organization for professionals working in mental retardation (Scheerenberger, 1983). Through its two journals, the American Journal on Mental Retardation and Mental Retardation, the AAMR has long promoted research, intervention, and social policy efforts on behalf of persons with mental retardation. As we describe below, the AAMR remains involved in many social and scientific debates.
In both earlier and present times, the study and treatment of mental retardation have constituted a multidisciplinary field, touching on numerous professions and perspectives that relate to individuals with mental retardation. In all these disciplines, research has been prominent, much of it related to new applications from the psychological and biological sciences. Such applications began early on, including Goddard's (1913a) studies employing the new Binet–Simon tests to examine residents at the Vineland (New Jersey) Training School in the years directly after the tests had been developed in France. Such “translations” of new developments to the population with mental retardation have always characterized the scientific study of mental retardation.