The History of People with Development Disabilities

The history of people with disabilities is a powerful -- sometimes brutal, sometimes horrifying -- story of discrimination, segregation, abuse, ignorance, silence and good intentions that brought bad results. It is the history of people with no choices, no voices, no champions.

Unfortunately, the history of people with developmental disabilities is repetitious. As you move through time in this course, you will notice several common themes that seem to reappear regularly. One of the primary reasons you need to know the history of people with developmental disabilities is to give you the information you need to change the future and stop these negative, abusive patterns that have persisted for centuries.

Here are a few of the major themes that have come, then faded away, only to return with new names:

Dehumanization and Devaluation


Segregation and Isolation

Abuse, Neglect and Homicide



Let's look at each more closely.

Dehumanization and Devaluation

Throughout history, society has viewed people with disabilities in different ways. Depending on the era, people with developmental disabilities have been viewed as "holy innocents" and "menaces to society"...as less than human, as burdens on society or as completely incapable of independent, rational thought or action.

Regardless of the time period, however, society has tended to view people with disabilities as a group, not as individuals.

Over time, this stereotyping created the widespread view that people with disabilities lacked human feelings and emotions, intelligence, even physical sensations such as pain, cold and hunger. Consequently, society has come to place less value on individuals with disabilities and their needs. Unfortunately, this attitude has led to a host of abuses, rejection and isolation.


Unfortunately, a natural outgrowth of dehumanization is exploitation.

Since the beginning of time, people with disabilities have been victimized by those with more power who abuse the opportunity to control the needs, environment and choices of those with no rights or protection.

Segregation and Isolation

Historically, people with disabilities have been isolated from the rest of society.

Sometimes, this was done to protect people with disabilities from a harsh society and to provide them with care and support. More often isolation allowed society to remove a disturbing reality. After all, it's easier to avoid thinking about things you can't see.

Regardless of the reason for the segregation, the isolation invariably results in stereotyping, misunderstanding and misconceptions, fear and a sense of superiority or inferiority -- depending on whether or not you are the person being isolated.

Whether an obvious, systematic attempt to segregate people with developmental disabilities or a more subtle approach, segregation puts people with developmental disabilities at risk.


For centuries, little was known about the cause, treatments and actual effects of many disabilities. Because few people took the time to look for an individual's abilities, it was difficult to see beyond his or her limitations.

As a result, society relied on stereotypes, misinformation and fear of the unknown to guide its response to the needs of people with disabilities. This ignorance reinforced the perception that segregating people with developmental disabilities was necessary to protect society.

In the mid-1800s, scientists, physicians and social reformers began to study people with disabilities in a more formal way. While some of these studies produced positive changes, most reinforced society's greatest fears and misconceptions.

Abuse, Neglect and Homicide

Abuse, neglect and homicide are perhaps the most pervasive themes running throughout the history of people with developmental disabilities.

For centuries, society has viewed people with developmental disabilities as less than human. This perception is almost guaranteed to create a culture of disrespect, one that values people with disabilities less than their peers without disabilities.

Over the centuries, people with developmental disabilities have been victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse and chronic neglect that has left even their most basic needs unmet. In hundreds of cases, this abuse has resulted in tremendous suffering and even death. Unfortunately, examples can be found from ancient times through today.


A final, enduring theme is resignation and society's acceptance of people with disabilities as incapable, childlike, defective or less worthy of protection, resources and acceptance.

Society, in general, as well as many parents, teachers, professionals and people with disabilities themselves, has come to accept these myths as truths and accept them as inevitable and unchangeable.

Until these perceptions shift to a more inclusive view of people with developmental disabilities, this theme will continue to recur time and again.

PathTowards a Positive Future

While these themes have been part of our shared past, they don't necessarily have to be part of our future. Below are positive alternatives to each of the negative themes you've just learned?

Recurring theme... ...best demonstrates which positive alternative?

1. Dehumanize

Belief that people with disabilities lack human feelings and emotions, intelligence, even physical sensations.

Care and Kindness: A culture that embraces, celebrates, supports and values the individual gifts, talents and contributions of all people.

2. Exploitation

Victimization of people with disabilities by those with more power.

Treating Fairly: To take a person's strengths and leverage them to benefit the individual.

3. Segregation and Isolation

Physically removing or isolating people with disabilities from the rest of society.

Inclusion: The bringing of people of different races, ethnicities, abilities and other groups into unrestricted and equal association, as in society or an organization.

4. Ignorance

Only seeing a person's limitations, not his or her abilities.

Knowledge: Awareness and understanding of facts, truths or information gained through experience, learning or reflection on people's humanity, diversity, equality and dignity.

5. Abuse, Neglect and Homicide

Victimizing people with developmental disabilities through physical abuse, sexual abuse, chronic neglect, even murder.

Respect and Cherish: Steps are being taken to make experiences and environments less discriminatory and abusive; and more respectful for people.

6. Resignation

Accepting myths as truths and accepting them as inevitable and unchangeable.

Not Giving Up: A resilience and an overall commitment to continue moving forward even in the face of defeat and discrimination.

Note: We would like to acknowledge and thank The Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities for providing this important public awareness information