Mental Retardation in America

A Historical Reader

513 pages

February, 2004

ISBN: 9780814782484



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Steven Noll is Visiting Associate Professor of History at the University of Florida. He is also an adaptive technology teacher for students with special needs in the Gainesville, Florida public schools. He is the author of Feeble-Minded in our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South.

All books by Steven Noll

James W. Trent is Professor and Director of the Master of Social Work Program at Southern Illinois University, and the author of the award-winning Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States.

All books by James Trent

The expressions "idiot, you idiot, you're an idiot, don't be an idiot," and the like are generally interpreted as momentary insults. But, they are also expressions that represent an old, if unstable, history. Beginning with an examination of the early nineteenth century labeling of mental retardation as "idiocy," to what we call developmental, intellectual, or learning disabilities, Mental Retardation in America chronicles the history of mental retardation, its treatment and labeling, and its representations and ramifications within the changing economic, social, and political context of America.

Mental Retardation in America includes essays with a wide range of authors who approach the problems of retardation from many differing points of view. This work is divided into five sections, each following in chronological order the major changes in the treatment of people classified as retarded. Exploring historical issues, as well as current public policy concerns, Mental Retardation in America covers topics ranging from representations of the mentally disabled as social burdens and social menaces; Freudian inspired ideas of adjustment and adaptation; the relationship between community care and institutional treatment; historical events, such as the Buck v. Bell decision, which upheld the opinion on eugenic sterilization; the evolution of the disability rights movement; and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.


  • "This is a highly readable and well-edited historical anthology, a wide-ranging collection that deals with mental retardation over two centuries. The book deserves perusal by anyone interested in mental retardation. The plot is powerful, and the questions profound."

    New England Journal of Medicine

  • "Strongly recommended"

    Library Journal

  • "Interesting collection of pieces."

    Gainesville Sun

  • "Illuminates the history of mental retardation in America, a subject that has largely been ignored by scholars. This volume goes far beyond the history of institutional care, and covers such subjects as the role of families, changes in concepts of retardation and educational theory, and the role of the state. Mental Retardation in America will contribute toward a new understanding of the subject and serve as a stimulus to further research."

    —Gerald N. Grob, Rutgers University

  • "The book will be of value to scholars concerned with the newly emerging history of disability."

    Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences