Friday, February 23, 2007

On The Absurd Notion That Cognitive Disability is New

In a prior post I wrote about hysteria surrounding a "1 in 6" stat that, depending on who's promoting it, includes children with psychiatric diagnoses, or children with a number of physical illnesses such as diabetes and asthma, or simply those with brain damage. The stat is sometimes accompanied by warnings of doom for the United States.

Pretty soon they might be running around "raising awareness" of the fact that half of all children are below average, as one reader suggested.

There's an unstated assumption behind the hysteria: that children used to be completely healthy before the 1990s, or at least early in the 20th century; and that except for the relative few with some known genetic mutations, cognitively disabled children did not exist for the most part.

This, of course, is not true. But what's more, hysteria about cognitive disability is not new either. I first realized this when I saw a picture of a 1926 American Eugenics movement exhibit over at It reads:

Every 48 seconds a person is born in the United States who will never grow up mentally beyond that stage of a normal 8 year old boy or girl.

And then:

Every 16 seconds a person is born in the United States.

Clearly they were claiming that 1 out of 3 persons born in the United States in 1926 had a significant developmental disability. I have reasons to suspect this stat was a fabrication or an exaggeration by the American Eugenics movement. But it's not like modern organizations do not make up stats or repeat unsourced stats in order to push their agendas.

There is more reliable data out there. Let's take a 1930 study review by Raymond Barnard on the prevalence of what he calls "speech defects". He reported that careful studies at the time were giving a prevalence of about 5% to 8% of the school population.

This is completely in line with modern studies such as Silva et al. (1987), Wong et al. (1992), and Shriberg et al. (1999). (A possible caveat is that we might be doing a bit of a comparison of apples to oranges between definitions of speech impairments).

There is also some data on institutionalization from the California State Mental Hygene Survey of 1930. It tells us that there were 14,451 persons in state hospitals for the insane, with a total institutional population of 25,643. The article also gives us the population of the state in 1925: 4.2 million. So about 61 of 10,000 persons in the state were institutionalized.

I haven't found data that could be used for a fair comparison. But let's look at California DDS data from Q4 2006. The total number of CDDS clients who live either in an Institutional Care Facility or a Nursing Facility is 8,777. If we take all clients who do not live independently or with a parent, that comes to a total of 38,216 persons. That is 11.3 of 10,000 persons in the state, or about a fifth of the total institutionalized population in the late 1920s. I should note that not all or even most persons living in mental hospitals or institutions in California are necessarily registered with CDDS, but the data point is interesting nevertheless.

Those are some hard numbers I have found. If you instead prefer stories about what friends claim to remember from 20 or 30 years ago, this is definitely not the blog for you.


  1. I suspect that the American Eugenics movement might have been counting all racial minorities in their mental retardation estimates. They certainly didn't make any secret of what they thought of non-whites, after all.

    Even so, I wouldn't be surprised if there were more children with developmental disabilities in those days. Before modern health and environmental laws, children were much more likely to be harmed by lead and other toxic substances.

  2. I had read another study at around that time which said that 6% of school children had an IQ below 80 (or 75 maybe). I haven't been able to find that study again, or I would've included it in the post. That's why I thought the American Eugenics movement was definitely wrong.

    But I didn't consider that the survey was likely of a seggregated white school. The American Eugenics Movement probably counted all racial minorities as being intellectually inferior. So you might be right.

  3. Joseph wrote:

    "Pretty soon they might be running around "raising awareness" of the fact that half of all children are below average, as one reader suggested."

    Um, shouldn't that be 'the fact that half of all children are below the median'?

    Sorry, just feeling a little bit pedantic tonight...

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  14. Sorry everyone, I've been focused on other things. I deleted all of John Best's idiotic monologue. I will turn on comment moderation indefinitely, and I may or may not check for new messages posted here.

  15. I hope you return to your blog eventually, as I had enjoyed and benefitted from your point of view.

  16. Sorry to see that a certain person has managed to reduce this blog to a green space with missing posts.

    Pesonally, I think that may have been his aim.

  17. But all notions are absurd indeed the notion of a notion is absurdissimus

    but then absurdity is absurd and it is all a social construct anyway

    how absurd ....

  18. i hope that yon idiot John hasn't put an end to this blog...

  19. Joesph below is an issue you posted on Mike Stanton's blog in which you suggested Timelord's recent posting is not in line with what he posted in another post at AFF.
    You also use the term alleged to describe what was posted at Kevin Leitch's blog.

    "Joseph // Aug 9th 2007 at 12:30 am

    Here’s the corresponding thread at AFF:

    They are very happy about it. Why wouldn’t they be when they are the leaders of neurodiversity in the UK :)

    I was surpised to read what Timelord says in this thread compared to what he allegedly said over at Kev’s blog."

    To put it beyond any shadow of doubt or credibility.
    July 15, 2007 3:45 PM

    Proving he said what he said about LFA's.

    His response: Post #171
    To my response on #169

    Of course he may be an absolute sweetheart and these comments and every other offensive utterance I have heard him make completely fautless.
    One thing it is not though is "alleged"

    I don't mind if you do or don't post this, it was intended for you to view and understand as you were questioning it's validity.

  20. Also, back in the 20s and 30s, tests used to determine intelligence were far more culturally biased, and would rely on things like understanding the rules of baseball to pick out what doesn't belong in a picture. These flawed and obviously inappropriate tests were used to support the eugenicists' ideas that racial minorities are inferior.

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