History of Developmental Services

Knowledge about disabilities was very different back in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Other than physical disabilities, doctors did not differentiate between different kinds of intellectual or mental health conditions. Psychiatric, learning and developmental disabilities were often all lumped together. According to the medical establishment, a disability was a flaw in a person that needed to be corrected through appropriate training and modification, preferably in large hospital-like settings situated away from mainstream society.

Negative attitudes towards people with a developmental disability were also strengthened by the eugenics movement that was sweeping across Europe and North America at that time. Eugenics tried to control groups of people who were considered to be inferior. Supporters of the eugenics movement argued that people with a developmental disability were the cause of many social problems and needed to be removed from society.

Doctors advised families to put their family members into an institution. There, they would spend their lives being cared for and protected. Even if families wanted to keep their loved ones at home, there were few, if any services available in the community to help them. For the most part, institutions were the only public service available. This way of thinking continued well into the 1960s.

Institutions were deliberately built away from cities and towns in the belief that fresh air and open spaces would be good for the residents. This served to isolate people with disabilities even more.

People with disabilities were viewed as patients, not as residents.

Learn more