When the original President's Panel on Mental Retardation was established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy at the urging of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, there was a deep divide between biomedical scientists and educators. This dichotomy almost destroyed the excellent work of the panel until the differences were reconciled by the Chairman, Leonard Mayo, and honorary advisor, Eunice Shriver. At that time most leading educators espoused the position that mental retardation was an educational problem and should be treated as such through adequate funding. They criticized the “medical model,” which was identified with the low quality of institutional care under the supervision of psychiatrists. Unfortunately many psychiatrists and other physicians showed little interest in persons with mental retardation who were considered untreatable and incurable.
This was not the case with Leo Kanner, the head of Child Psychiatry in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of my department there, who awakened interest in the field of mental retardation. One of his disciples, James Harris, has expanded that tradition. Although there still remain differences, there is more recognition by leading special educators that there are important medical needs of persons with mental retardation and by enlightened physicians that there are educational and social needs as well.
The enormous change in societal attitudes toward the subjects of this book, aided greatly by the Special Olympics, has been followed by changes in terminology—no longer is a person with Down syndrome a “Mongolian idiot” or “Mongol.” “Retards” is now a denigrating term used only by insensitive teenagers. As a less stigmatizing general diagnosis, “intellectual disability” has replaced “mental retardation,” just as “physical disability” has replaced “physical handicap.”