HomedyslexiaThe History of Learning Disabilities – Part One

The history of learning disabilities is one wrought with pain, disgust and glimmers of hope bright enough to keep us going. It’s also a part of our story as human beings that gets passed over as unimportant by the world at large.

The Kennedy family. Rosemary is the girl sitting next
to the dog. This was taken well before her forced
lobotomy.
[Public Domain] via WikiMedia Commons
For instance, before the 1960s, learning disabilities were given the blanket diagnosis of mental the stigmas people with LDs deal with on a regular basis. Because of this segregation, these individuals were subjected to the horrific treatment as well.

retardation, and put into the same group as people with mental illnesses. That attitude is still very strong when we stop to think about

Rosemary Kennedy
In 1918, for example, Rosemary Kennedy was born with developmental and learning disabilities. Throughout her school life, she was plagued with intense difficulties with reading, writing and math. She had her IQ tested at an early age, and was diagnosed as “feebleminded”, which we’d today call retarded. Because the family was so ashamed of having a “slow” daughter and steeped in politics, it’s difficult to tell how accurate this diagnosis is, based on what we know today.
As Rosemary aged, she grew more upset about not being able to keep up with her siblings or meet her parents’ expectations. Naturally, she began acting out. In an attempt to stop the behavior, her father forced her to get a lobotomy without her mother’s knowledge. It should be noticed, that this happened shortly after the surgery came to the US. Instead of helping her, the surgery completely erased any progress she had made. She was sent to a special home to live the rest of her days out, nearly forgotten by her own family.
Fernald School
Another horrifying example of how poorly neurodiverse people were treated took place in 1953. The clinical director at Fernald School, Clemens Beda, started a special club for ‘mentally retarded’ boys. He sent a letter to parents requesting permission to give them higher levels of calcium in their breakfast, but didn’t mention the experimental radioactive substance that went with the supplement.
There are countless other cases like these two, as well. Below, and in a following entry, I’ve compiled a list of important points in the history of LDs. Pre-1960s also include mental illness, as that was the umbrella LDs were put under.
1793
Before this year, the majority of mentally ill patients were kept chained down in asylums “for their own good”. Dr. Phillipe Pinel, who worked in the Paris asylum, La Bicetre, unchained his charges, and took steps to more humane treatment.
Dr. Philippe Pinel
By Anna Mérimée  [Public domain], via
Wikimedia Commons
Some patients had been consistently chained for over 30 years.
1800
One of the first official classification lists of mental illness was put together by Dr. Pinel, the same man who had unchained his patients many years prior.
The categories were:
  • Melancholy
  • Dementia
  • Mania without delirium
  • Mania with delirium
These are the roots of differentiation various forms of depression, mania, psychotic disorders and many others.
1801
A 12 year old boy wandered out of the woods and into a small town. He neither spoke, nor read, but it was determined that he had been living in the forest since he was about four or five years old.
Later named Victor, he eventually went under the care of a man by the name of Jean-Marc Gaspard, who attempted to teach him language. Through their work, early discoveries were made in how to teach developmentally delayed kids.
1805
Dr. Benjamin Rush, commonly known as the father of American psychiatry, published “Medical Inquiries and Observations. In that work, he added to Dr. Pinel’s idea to differentiate between each mental disorder.
1877
A neurologist by the name of Adolf Kussamaul was fascinated with reading disorders. Through his studies, he was able to determine that “text blindness” was not always related to vision, intelligence level or speech. He’s the one who coined the term “word blindness”.
1887
Ten years’ worth of research later, Rudolf Berlin, a physician from Germany, used the term “dyslexia” for the first time in history. They had refined Kussamaul’s word blindness to the more accurate description of “very great difficulty in interpreting written or printed symbols”.
Next week, I’ll post an entry about what happened in the 1900s.

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