The Moral Treatment, Hygiene, and Education of Idiots


Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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10 Responses

  1. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I love your insights into this unique world.   We on the outside seldom get a chance to see it aright.  Either someone’s gawking or saying stupid and hurtful things, or they’re condescending or generally being where they’re not wanted.

    National Geographic did a video, Killer Stress. I saw it a few days ago and thought of you, Rose.   There’s a section in there where they showed a study done on mothers of severely disabled children:  they seem exhibit many of the same symptoms as PTSD at a neurobiological level as combat veterans:  long exposure to stress is no joke.  In that video, a group of mothers were shown at their self-help group.   One mother said something to the effect that only in that group could she let down her guard.   Another mother observed the group was the only place where she could indulge in her own form of therapy, black humour, telling jokes nobody else would get.   Yet another mother laughed and said only they would ever be /allowed/ to tell that sort of joke.   Fascinating video.  You might enjoy it. It’s on Netflix.

    We’re forever at a loss for words to describe people with disabilities.   By the time of the King James Bible, the translators had already dispensed with the old pejorative “fool” for such people though it has a sound enough backing in Sanskrit, vatula, == insane, becoming in time Latin follis, a bellows, from which we also get folio and follicle.  Fool became the translation for the Latin stultorum and Hebrew nabal, meaning the morally deficient.

    There was always a distinction between the mentally ill and the morally deficient.   Hebrew distinguished nabal from mishgoim, the truly insane.

    Madman is its own etymological puzzle box.  Maeden, gemaedden, to maim, to injure would in time become Old English gemaedde, to be driven insane.  The word carries a different emphasis in the USA, but the echoes of those broken, damaged souls is still heard in “don’t get mad.”   Outside influences made the madman mad.

    Idiot has its own cover story.   Idiotes, from Greek, a layman, not-a-specialist.   At the time, idiot was an a decided improvement on madman. Idiot implied teachable.   The word Moron came into usage, another Greek euphemism, moros , silly, unwise, childish.   It was a euphemism for the old English simpleton, someone with the mental reasoning ability of an 8 to 12 year old.   Soon enough, both words became pejorative and were abandoned in a clinical setting as quickly as they had entered it.

    There’s another reading of “moral treatment”, which might apply the adjective moral to the treatment itself, for the history of mental illness is replete with Immoral Treatment.

    There’s a happy story which emerges from WW2.   The Mennonites, Amish and the Society of Friends (aka Quakers) refused to serve in battle and declared themselves conscientious objectors.   Many of them were sent to the most repulsive task imaginable, working in “insane asylums”, replacing the “keepers” who went off to war.   The inmates were then chained to walls, treated worse than zoo animals, kept in the most deplorable conditions.   These pacifists went into those institutions, unchained those poor inmates, cleaned them up, treated them with dignity and respect, cleaned up those places to the extent that when the war ended, the “keepers” came back to institutions they no longer recognized.   Those pacifists completely changed the nature of how we treat the mentally ill in this country.Report

  2. Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

    Thanks, I’ll definitely check out the video!

    I don’t know if I meet or ever met clinical levels of PTSD, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. My kid had a 4 month stay in the neonatal ICU (not exactly a stress-free environment) and originally had an even worse prognosis. We were told he might die. THen we were told he would probably live, but in addition to profound I/DD, he was also blind and incapable of responding to the environment at all, neither of which proved to be the case (and he does not appear to have profound I/DD either, and we have reasonable hopes that he will one day walk and have some language). We had a toddler at home. I honestly don’t know how we got through that time.

    And I was in the ideal scenario. My husband is not about to run out on us (the divorce rate for parents of kids with my son’s syndrome is, I’ve read, close to 75%). We had supportive family and friends. We live in a great community that provides tons of free, excellent services. Our health insurance was awesome. I’m related to approximately 1600 lawyers and my best friend in the world, and my disabled son’s godfather, is a pediatrician who has basically been permanently on call for me both as friend and constant second-opinion giver and medical educator (Dr. Saunders is one of the best people on the planet). My work is such that I can be flexible enough to take my kid to his endless therapies and doctor’s appointments without quitting.

    It has completely changed the course of my life. There’s a reason I post on this so much, even though I have two other kids whom I love just as dearly!

    Now, while my life is stressful, I think of myself as actually much happier than people around me!

    It’s true you need the other parents. About 150 of my facebook friends are parents of kids with the same syndrome. And i’s exactly right. They are the ones who understand the black humor (some of them), the bitching and moaning. If you brag that your 2 1/2 year old stood for three seconds without holding on to anything (as I did recently), they will sing from the rooftops — while with everyone else it’s full of pity. Every year we hold a conference and I love going. One of my closest friends has become another syndrome mom.Report

    • Avatar Mary in reply to Rose Woodhouse says:

      “If you brag that your 2 1/2 year old stood for three seconds without holding on to anything (as I did recently),”

      I would throw a freakin party! Congrats to your little man 🙂

      Those conferences are an interesting thing. I’ve never been as a parent, only as a professional. It is great to be around people who understand. Once I walk out, I find myself making a concentrated effort to remember that not everyone is familiar with I/DD, for about two days.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Mary says:

        Thanks! I was one proud mama! 🙂

        The conferences are great. In fact, my husband and I have devoted our fundraising efforts to running the conferences and reimbursing the costs for those who can’t afford to come. Some of the seminars are helpful. But it’s mostly just great to be in a place where no one stares, everyone coos over your disabled kid instead of your typical kid, you can tube feed your kid in public without thinking twice, you can get advice from parents with older kids or adults. The typical siblings bond with one another. My husband won’t go to the seminars, but loves the beer nights where the parents just socialize with those who understand. It’s really important not to feel alone in the world. In my county, which has just under a million people, there is only one other kid diagnosed with the syndrome. I see no one on a regular basis who has disabilities like my kid’s. Once a year, they’re not the only one.Report

  3. Avatar Christopher Carr says:

    I just wanted to say that I enjoyed this article very much. Thanks!Report