Intellectual Disability: Understanding Its Development, Causes, Classification, Evaluation, and Treatment

By James C. Harris | Go to book overview

6
Understanding and Evaluating
Emotional and Behavioral
Impairment

MENTAL ILLNESS AND INTELLECTUAL DISABILITY

In English property law, intellectual disability and mental illness were differentiated in the thirteenth century. By 1690, John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding had clarified differences between intellectual disability and mental illness. Locke wrote:

The defect in [intellectual disability] seems to proceed from want of quickness,
activity, and motion in the intellectual faculties, whereby they are deprived of
reason; whereas mad men seem to suffer by the other extreme. For they do not
appear to me to have lost the faculty of reasoning: but having joined together some
ideas very wrongly … they argue right from wrong principles.… But there are
degrees of madness as folly; the disorderly jumbling of ideas together is in some
more, and some less. In short, herein seems to lie the difference between [intel-
lectually disabled] and mad men, that mad men put wrong ideas together, and so
make wrong propositions, but argue and reason right from them: but [those with
intellectual disability] make very few or no propositions, but argue and reason
scarce at all. (Scheerenberger, 1983, p. 41)

Thus, Locke is often credited with establishing the dichotomy between mental illness and intellectual disability that influenced social policy for people with intellectual disability. But he did not appreciate the capacity persons with intellectual disability do have to reason with adequate supports, nor did he consider that persons with intellectual disability are also at risk for mental illness and behavior disorders.

Historically, intellectual disability and mental illness were regarded to be mutually exclusive conditions. Affective and behavioral disturbances in individuals with intellectual disability generally were regarded as manifestations of maladaptive learning and adverse psychosocial experiences rather than as indi-

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