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Take Them Off The Human Scrap Heap

Creator: Edith M. Stern (author)
Date: August 1948
Publication: Woman's Home Companion
Source: Available at selected libraries

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It could be your next baby -- feeblemindedness strikes in the finest families. Yet thousands of such children and adults still live almost like animals in inferior institutions. With proper care and training many of them could learn to take respected and self-supporting places in society.


I HAVE never been so aware of the horror and waste resulting from man's inhumanity to man as I was when visiting our state institutions for the feeble-minded. To see men, women and children whose mental ages run from virtually zero to eight years -- all children, really -- kept at a helpless, often repulsive animal level is an ugly sight.


Even uglier is the realization that uncounted numbers of human beings with mental ages of eight to twelve and higher needlessly stagnate in these institutions. With a few years' training and supervision they might be sent out into the community to lead happy self-supporting lives. But most of our seventy-eight state institutions for mental deficients are not training schools -- they are little more than wretched zoos.


I have visited many of these institutions across the country. I have read detailed official surveys of others. I have seen mental deficients of all grades. The crib cases, so mentally and physically damaged from birth that they seem to be mere inert organisms. And the well-set-up institutional helpers who are superficially indistinguishable from many a self-supporting person you meet every day. I have talked with psychiatrists, psychologists, educators and nurses. And I have found out the sickening truth: do-nothingness is the rule in most institutions. No one knows just how many children could be salvaged from this human scrap heap -- because so few places have tried.


Come with me to schools in typical states, bearing in mind that we are not seeing the mentally ill whose once sound minds have gone wrong, like a cracked wall. We are visiting the mentally deficient, whose minds have never fully developed, like a wall left unfinished. We are actually seeing children -- all these individuals, whatever their chronological age, are children mentally. We are seeing children, but few toys, no cheerful playrooms, no bright pictures, little to make a child happy.


We come first to an institution in a central state -- a region of fertile land, magnificent estates and luxurious hotels. But the institution's main four-story building was put up in the 1880's. A dilapidated wooden shack shelters its most crippled helpless patients. The only new building is a pretty little white cannery. Around a small desolate outdoor play yard is a gray splintered wooden wall, once white.


Built for four hundred and fifty, the institution houses seven hundred. Beds are so tightly packed that the head of one touches the foot of the next. And nothing else in the bedrooms except an array of mops in two dormitories and a can of talcum powder and an artificial flower on a window sill in another. Some of the girls who work at night were asleep in shadeless daylight glare.


The girls' playroom -- toyless -- boasted double rows of wooden benches along the walls. Some children could not find room even on these and were sprawled on the floor. The boys' playroom was made even dimmer by gray paint on the lower panes of barred windows. In the playroom for the most backward boys -- called the low-grade boys -- I saw exactly one plaything: a string of spools around an old man's neck. In the playroom for brighter boys -- the high-grades, most of them young -- were a set of jacks, a torn comic book and a few tin dolls' dishes.


"When they're herded like cattle, there isn't much you can do for them," the superintendent remarked despairingly. He deplored his inability to group his charges by either mental or chronological age and I shuddered at seeing Ned and Bobbie, two lively eleven-year-olds, living among adult imbeciles.


Such lumping together is destructive. The young pick up bad habits from the old -- not the least, of them, deplorable physical practices which, thanks to idleness and jam-packing, are virtually uncontrollable. And the brighter sink to the level of the duller.


But I did not see the playrooms at their worst until mealtime. Children considered incapable of going to the dining-room were fed in the playroom. Overworked attendants dished food out of chipped enamel containers and tried to feed the most infantile. The other children either half-sat at tables, wolfing their food from spoons or cupped hands, or ate while pacing the narrow lane between the tables and the wall benches.


Conditions weren't much better in the dining-room for the brighter children. These children receive no table training. The only utensils were spoons, and here as in every other state training school I visited, there were no napkins. When a child empties his plate and wants seconds the food remaining on some other child's plate is dumped onto his.


Little more is done with schooling. Some of the brightest children get only two hours of teaching a day -- one hour manual, one academic. When I visited the academic class for girls only four were present. "The girls who work in the kitchen sometimes don't get off for school," the teacher apologized. At another unit of the institution I was told the school day was five hours. I walked in on what was called library hour. One dull-looking girl was rapidly thumbing over the pages of an unillustrated magazine of which she was obviously not reading one word. Two were engaged with comic books. The rest were doing handwork.

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