n February 1963, a remarkable and fundamental shift began with President John F. Kennedy’s Special Message to Congress on Mental Illness and Mental Retardation (now called intellectual disabilities). President Kennedy envisioned a future in which, as he put it, the “reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.”
President Kennedy’s forward-thinking ideas resulted in the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963, signed into law fifty years ago today. This ultimately became both the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act and the Community Mental Health Act, and was the first piece of substantial federal policy that focused upon deinstitutionalization.
Five decades ago, it was common for people with psychiatric needs and people with developmental disabilities to live in institutions; many were excluded from their communities, separated from their families, and subjected to abuse and neglect. There were no expectations for a meaningful life—the assumption was that people with developmental disabilities or mental illness could only be passive recipients of charity and care, not active contributors to their family, community or society.
Thankfully, we have seen substantial change in the past fifty years, and the Developmental Disabilities Act (DD Act) is the foundation upon which those changes have been built.In 1963, children with disabilities did not have the right to go to school with siblings and peers without disabilities because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act did not pass until 1975. People with disabilities did not have any civil rights protections until the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 establishing broad non-discrimination protections. There was no right to choose community living until the Olmstead decision in 1999. And, the last major bastion of legal discrimination was finally addressed in 2010 with the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the end of discrimination in health insurance coverage based upon pre-existing conditions.
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