Advocating for Manitoba Children with Mental Disabilities: Parent Associations in the 1950s and 1960s

By Adams, Christopher | Manitoba History, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Advocating for Manitoba Children with Mental Disabilities: Parent Associations in the 1950s and 1960s


Adams, Christopher, Manitoba History


Along with other parts of the western industrialised world, Manitoba experienced its own post-war baby-boom. Over a ten year period ending with the 1951 Census, the province's natural population (which excludes migration-related numbers) grew by 107,510 people. Ten years later, the 1961 Census revealed a ten year natural population increase of 149,690 for the province. The impact on local communities across Manitoba was profound when one considers that there were only 776,541 individuals living in Manitoba in 1961. Premier Duff Roblin and his Progressive Conservatives, who chased from power the long ruling and tight spending Liberal-Progressives and their leader Douglas Campbell in the provincial elections of 1958 and 1959, put the province on a new road with regard to social spending. Between 1958 and 1969, the provincial government's budgeted spending in the area of health and social welfare increased by 367% and in education by a whopping 591%. (2)

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As the province's general population grew, there naturally occurred what can be called a "mini-boom" of those born with mental disabilities. (3) At the same time, the life expectancy of those who were in the public's care tripled with the use of such medical practices as tube feeding and antibiotics. (4) Although it is difficult to provide precise population figures for the number of mentally disabled children and adults in Manitoba during the 1950s and 1960s, a 1965 report authored by John Christianson for the provincial government titled A Study of the Education of Handicapped Children in Manitoba put forward an estimate of 3 percent, with 30,000 put forward as the number of people who had some form of mental disability. (5)

Unfortunately the basis for these population numbers was not rooted in Manitoba-specific data but was drawn from the United States where the President's Panel on Retardation submitted in its 1962 report to Congress that three percent of the American population lived with a mental disability. (6) Two decades later, the three percent incidence figure was still being used in Manitoba when the Manitoba Task Force on Mental Retardation presented its report to the Minister of Community Services and Corrections in 1982, saying that approximately three percent of Manitobans had "some level of mental retardation." (7)

If using the imported but seemingly unchallenged incidence figure that was used in the early 1960s onward in Manitoba, and assuming that the incidence rate remained constant over time, estimates for the number of Manitobans with mental disabilities can be calculated using census data. Table I provides population figures for the province from 1921 to 1981, with estimates provided for each decade based on three percent incidence. The bottom row shows the estimated growth in the number of individuals with mental disabilities for each decade. In 1951, there was a ten-year increase of 1,410 individuals with mental disabilities, and in 1961 an additional 4,350 individuals with mental disabilities were living in the province (see Table).

With regard to birthrates, and again using what could be called the "3% rule of thumb," Christianson estimated that 690 children with mental disabilities were being born each year in Manitoba, with 333 deemed to be "dependent," that is, non-"educable" or non-"trainable." At the same time, and this time using provincial government data, Christianson reported that "approximately 1,200 children with moderate to severe mental retardations are known to community agencies" and that "about half of them are registered in schools operated by the Association for Retarded Children." (8)

Institutionalization and the Medical Paradigm

Until well into the 1980s, "the language" of public policy as it pertained to Manitobans with mental disabilities, as elsewhere, was largely shaped by healthcare-related perspectives. That is, individuals with these disabilities were regularly treated as patients needing placement in "mental hospitals" or treated as "out patients. …

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