How were mentally challenged people treated during the 1930s?


Quick Answer

Mentally challenged people were often subject to abuse and cruel treatment in the 1930s. Most mentally-ill individuals were placed in institutions. However, the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 improved the lives of many disabled individuals, by providing a small income and a little self-sufficiency.

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Full Answer

At the time, institutions were believed to be the best treatment for people with developmental disabilities. However, they were actually brutal and dehumanizing places. The residents were often forced to labor long hours if they were not confined to their beds.

Overcrowding was a problem, and many patients experienced violence at the hands of other residents. The conditions also made disease outbreaks common. Medically dangerous methods were used to punish and control the residents, including intentionally inducing an insulin coma. Residents were often given medically unnecessary drugs, and if they were too difficult to control, they were sometimes given lobotomies.

Disabled people were sometimes used for medical experimentation without their consent. In some states, they could be forcibly sterilized to prevent them from ever having children. Some doctors even recommended euthanasia for people with intellectual disabilities, although this was illegal and not widely practiced.

Although society was not supportive as a whole, many families still loved their disabled children. Unfortunately, poor families often could not afford to care for them, and so-called "ugly laws" in some cities made it so that visibly disabled people could not even go outside. Often, institutions were the only choice.

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