In 1950, when my parents sought help for my 2-year-old mentally slow brother they were told that there was no one in the American medical community who specialized in the problem of mental retardation.
In 1951 they managed to find a neurologist with a subspecialty in mental retardation - but they found him only after reading an article the doctor and written in the Reader's Digest.
"Those were the Dark Ages," said Dr. Frank J. Menolascino, president of the National Association for Retarded Citizens (NARC), the nation's leading parent support group, which was not founded until 1950, two years after my brother, Roger Drake Meyers, was born.
"If you told a physician that your child was retarded, he'd shrug and tell you it was helpless and hopeless. Since no one figured the retarded could do anything, they also figured, why bother?" he said.
In the intervening quarter of a century since my parents first sought help for their retarded son, the field of mental retardation has undergone a sweeping rennaissance that has opened new horizons for mentally slow people like Roger.
Today Roger, 29, is married to a 26-year-old retarded woman, and both hold jobs in the community. They live in a typical suburban apartment building along with ordinary working people, receive about $450 a month in supplemental federal support funds, and benefit from frequent visits from a trained state guidance counselor.
All that is a far cry from the world that faced Roger when he was born retarded. Then the standard solution to dealing with all forms fo retardation - no matter how mild - was to warehouse the the indivdual, frequently in institutions that also housed the mentally ill, criminally insane and the physically handicapped.
Those few retarded who somehow managed to avoid a life spent within a state institution remained community outcasts, held mental jobs that lacked even a semblance of dignity, received no support in the form of money or training from federal or state governments and had no hope of living in a "normal" enviroment, much less of marrying.
Such attitudes on the part of society reach deep into the roots of our Western culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans abandoned the retarded in the wilderness while European cultures in the Middel Ages turned them into court jesters and fools. Some historians believe that the witches burned at the stake in 17th century America were in fact the retarded members of the community.
Three out of every four retarded individuals - and there are an estimated 6.3 million mentally handicapped people in the nation - are today considered educable to the point where they may be able to lead productive and independent lives within society.
That belief represents a dramatic shift from how at the time Roger was born, the medical world viewed those same individuals who I.Q.'s range between 50 and 70.Prevailing opinion then was that the mentally handicapped individual with an I.Q. of 50 such as Roger had at the age of 9 was locked into limited development - if he or she was able to develop at all.
Today Roger has an I.Q. of 74 an increase of more than 40 per cent. It is the result of his own hard work to learn simple tasks coupled with the enlightened training and education programs of the last decade.
Roger himself says it best. "People are retarded by what they don't know," he said. "That's why I work so hard to learn the things I don't know and become more normal."
All 50 states now have programs to aid the mentally handicapped and nationwide including federal expenditures about $6 billion is spent in the field. In 1913 the year of Roger's birth so little was spent and so little was the interest in the plight of the handicapped that no one even bothered to total up how much was being spent in the field.
The ever broadening spectrum of services available today to the retarded individual and his or her family - services that did not even exist 20 years ago - is impressive.
Immediate educational evaluation and training is more and more frequently available at birth for those children suspected of suffering from retardation. My parents looked for years after Roger's birth for someone who culd offer such a basic help.
Parents and siblings can find competent professional counseling - paid for by the state or federal government - to educate them to the needs of the retarded family member keep them abreast of new developments and help them to deal with whatever guilt or social stigma they may feel. My mother for instance spent some 20 years after Roger's birth carrying an intangible burden of guilt that drove her to drink heavily before competent counseling became readily available.
Public and private agencies and organizations now run job training programs and volunteer adults help the mentally handicapped learn such routine tasks as cooking and shopping to help them integrate within the community.
There is even a whole planopy of prenatal tests available to help determine the likelihood of giving birth to a retarded child before the child is conceived or while it is in the womb and tests that can be done on the newborn that pinpoint possible physical ailments that could eventually lead to retardation.
As a result of these new approaches and diagnostic techniques more and more success stories like Roger's are happening every day. And as more money is spent on helping the educably retarded move into society as productive individuals the benefits to that society increase.
According to Health Education and Welfare economist Ronald W. Conley, for every dollar that is spent on educating and training the retarded adult male. $14 is returned during that individual's working lifetime.
The picture while improving is far from rosy Conley and other point out.
The retarded because of deeply in grained societal prejudices are still the last hired and the first fired. Those same prejudices are magnified even more for the adult retarded woman who is exposed to sexual bias as well and as a result has a considerably lower earning capacity.
Many of the improvements in the lot of the mentally handicapped had to be won in court battles from state and federal agencies still reluctant to spend money in the field. In the past the courts themselves rarely acted to protect the civil rights of the retarded and frequently allowed the state to become the mentally slow individual's guardian without his or her consent.
In the 1970's however a series of successful lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, New York and elsewhere established the fact that the retarded have the same civil rights as other citizens rights that the states and federal government agencies were obligated to honor through the establishment of programs to aid them.
The group most active in arguing for the rights of the retarded was formed in Minneapolis in 1950 at the time my father and mother were taking Roger from specialist to specialist in their frustrating struggle to find help.
Calling themselves the National Association for Retarded Children (NARC), the 22 charter members grandly set as their goal the prevention and amelioration of metnal retardation.
In a nation wher+ medical research was taking leaps and bounds they discovered that there was no scientific journal devoted to the study of mental retardation. Partly to correct that lack they launched a two-year "Pennies for Research" drive that neted them $78,000, a partly figure compared to the millions the March of Dimes was collecting at the same time. With that money they began publishing in 1955. "Mental Subnormality," the first standard reference in the field.
The election of John F. Kennedy as President in 1960 "got the ball rolling." Menolascion said, because Kennedy publically acknowledged affection for his retarded sister, Rosemary. It was an act that helped remove some of the stigma often associated with retardation, he said.
The next year, Kennedy established the President's Panel on Retardation and boosted federal spending in the field to about $300 million a figure that represented an all time high.
Today the federal government spends more than $2.7 billion in the field and state and local governments this year budgeted more than $3.3 billion, according to Fred J. Krause, executive director of the President's Committee on Mental Retardation (the name was changed in 1956).
Increased money was helpful but groups such as NARC still felt frustrated by official attitudes towards the retarded, which was either to warehouse them in inadequate public institutions, or ignore them.
Changes were occurring elsewhere, however. In the late 1950's and early 1960's a new concept in the field was being developed by researchers in Scandinavia, and popularized in this country by Wolf Wolfensberger, now a professor of special education at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.
Known as "normalization," the main tenet of the theory is that "if the individual is given supports and services, he can overcome some of his difficulties and live in ways that are typical of society in general," according to Steve Nevin, an associate of Wolfensberger at Syracuse.
Wolfensberger wrote a book on the subject, and coupled with his work on the President's Committee on Retardation, as well as his teaching classes in Nebraska, Toronto, and now Syracuse, knowledge of the concept spread. The counselors who work with Roger and Virginia, who is also retarded said "normalization" is the basis of their practice.
Since the concept of normalization holds that the retarded should be out in the community as much as possible, advocates of normalization are as a rule opposed to the large institutions which for so many years in his country were the only alternative to living at home for the retarded.
In part because of the acceptance of normalization by state and federal administrators, the number of persons housed in large institutions has declined from 200,000 in 1972 to 175,000 today, and is expected to drop to 130,000 by 1980.
At the same time, "hundreds" of half-way houses in the community are currently being developed in which six or 12 retarded people live under supervision - just as did Roger - and where they are exposed to normalization-inspired educational experiences. Many eventually are able to move into the community on their own.
Other diagnostic and counseling services designed to help integrate the retarded into the community are available through state and local agencies.
The idea of seeing the retarded as persons with special needs rather than objects of pity, guilt, frustration or resentment also applies to the parents and friends of the retarded themselves.
"Your parents had a tendency to 'babt' Roger, to do things like shopping for him and not let him get out on his own," said Bill Stein, the counselor who worked most closely with Roger.
"He always wanted to get out of that institution to do things on his own but after talking with them about it he'd have doubts and wouldn't be so sure of himself. They would plant the doubts in his mind," he said.
Virginia H. Meyers, Roger's wife complained that "my momma always buys my clothes for me, and I want to pick them out for myself. But she says I'm doing this for you, but I want to do it myself," she said.
Rev. Ed Svendsen the staff chaplin at the residential facility where both Roger and Virginia lived, said, "We tend to put our fears into the retarded.They know what they can do, but we're not sure, and because they trust us and respect our opinions they get confused," he said.
"We are in a whole new ballgame," said Dr. Menolascino, head of NARC, which now boasts 275,000 members in 1,900 local organizations.
"With the money and technology we now have, we can deal not only with the prevention and amelioration of mental retardation, but with its cure right now. We now have enormous knowledge about brain cells, chemicals, and remedial therapies. We've taken the bullshit of rejection long enough. It's time for our rights, too," he said, reflecting the growing militancy of the movement.
Virginia H. Meyers, my sister-in-law whose mental handicap stems from an injury at birth caused by a physicians's forceps, put it this way: "How is it with us? It's no different than it is with anyone else, except that we're slower."