The Mentally Retarded: Recognizing Their Rights

by Emil G. Brisson

Emil G. Brisson is a staff member of the Hunterdon Developmental Center, a state facility for the retarded in Clinton, New Jersey.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 18, 1984, p. 37. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


As Christians, we must learn to treat mentally retarded people with dignity — not with pity or ridicule — and to help change our society’s attitudes toward them.

About a year ago, I came across a brief news item in our diocesan newspaper that referred to the work of a group called the Society of the Holy Innocents. The name would have been welcomed by leaders in the field of mental retardation 40 years ago. But no more. The image of mentally retarded people as innocent, childlike creatures who can do no deliberate wrong is only one of many simplistic ways of describing them that have done more harm than good. Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger has identified a number of the traditional concepts that our society has had of mentally retarded people (The Principle of Normalization in Human Services [National Institute on Mental Retardation, 1972]). He points out that we have thought of these people as being less than human; as creatures to be pitied, ridiculed or feared; as eternal children; or as having a disease. Each of these images dehumanizes them.

Recent federal and state laws and court decisions have added authority to the current philosophy that the mentally retarded are persons who have legal and civil rights under the U.S. Constitution, just as all other citizens do. P.L. (Public Law) 94-103, the Developmentally Disabled Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (1975), identifies the rights of mentally retarded people, including the right to training to develop their capabilities to the maximum. P.L. 94-142 (1975) assures that all handicapped children will receive an appropriate education. Similar laws have been passed in most states, and numerous court decisions have proclaimed that mentally retarded people must be given the opportunity for a full life in the “least restrictive environment. For most of them, this means being in a home and a community like yours and mine.

Those who think of mentally retarded people as living in, and needing to live in, large institutions should consider the following facts. Most of them (approximately 90 per cent) are mildly retarded (I.Q. 55 to 69), and in the majority of cases, self-supporting. Most moderately retarded people (I.Q. 40 to 54) can live in a home environment and work successfully in a sheltered workshop (many corporations subcontract routine, repetitious jobs to such workshops). A number of studies have shown that the mentally retarded become more independent in small community programs where they are exposed to the experiences of everyday life. This “community” experience may mean living in their family’s home, in a supervised or unsupervised apartment, in a supervised group home with other mentally retarded people, or in any home in the neighborhood. The experience also may involve working in any one of a variety of competitive jobs that nonhandicapped people also hold, working in a sheltered workshop, or attending a program that teaches self-help skills like cooking and doing laundry, as well as various prevocational skills.

The thrust over the past 15 to 20 years has been to move mentally handicapped people out of institutions and into such community programs. This movement has been greeted with enormous enthusiasm by some, with overwhelming opposition by others. Neighborhoods where group homes are to be located have frequently been cautious and somewhat fearful about what this will mean for their image and for property values. But many people have taken a much more positive attitude toward their mentally retarded neighbors once they have gotten to know them.

The struggle for recognition of the rights of mentally handicapped people is reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Both fought for the right of all people to be treated as human beings, able to live and work where they choose. John Gliedman and William Roth, in The Unexpected Minority: Handicapped Children in America (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), have demonstrated the numerous similarities between the prejudice toward black people and toward the handicapped.

The civil rights movement received a great deal of support from churches and clergy. Ministers, priests, nuns, monks and laypeople prayed, discussed, sang and marched to help win fair and equal treatment for black people. Seeing black people as their brothers and sisters in the Lord, they, attempted to live according to Jesus’ admonition that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

As Christians, we must learn to treat mentally retarded people with dignity -- not with pity or ridicule -- and to help change our society’s attitudes toward them.

Social change occurs in part because laws and court decisions mandate a change in the way people act. But it also comes about because people’s attitudes arc transformed. Laws and court decisions require that black people be treated as equals. However, it is obvious that blacks are still discriminated against, because many whites still do not accept them as equals. The same is true of the treatment of the mentally retarded. Their rights may be protected by law, but they will never be treated with dignity unless people’s attitudes change.

Churches should play a major role in fostering greater acceptance of and respect for the mentally retarded. Consider the following suggestions for action that could be taken by congregations:

• Encourage clergy to give sermons that highlight the dignity of all people, including mentally retarded children and adults.

• Sponsor educational programs for church groups and for the public, providing information about the capabilities and needs of mentally handicapped people. Provide information about current programs for these people.

• Make integration of mentally retarded people into regular church services and programs the primary method of providing services for them. Provide special programs only when necessary.

• Integrate mentally retarded children and adolescents into religious education programs. Provide special classes for those not able to participate in regular classes.

• Encourage mentally retarded children and adolescents to join in church-related activities such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and youth groups.

• Make special programs for mentally retarded people appropriate for their chronological age. (Adults should not be provided with childish Sunday school fare.)

• Provide moral support for residential and work programs that are planned for your community or neighborhood. This can be done at public hearings held to inform the community about programs that plan to locate in your area.

Many of these suggestions can also be applied to other handicapped people: those with cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, mental illness, amputated limbs and so on. Churches need to become more aware of the difficulties that handicapped people face, to become more involved in bringing Christ into their lives, and to become more active in challenging the nonhandicapped to recognize their responsibilities as Christians to their handicapped fellow Christians.