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Changes in the treatment of persons with disabilities did not occur in isolation. This was a period of great change for the United States. The rural landscape was being replaced with the industrial city. The following events contributed to changes in society's perception of people with disabilities:

  • Around 1890, a large number of people from Eastern Europe immigrated to the United States. People with strange names, and different languages and customs settled on the east coast. These immigrants were willing to work hard for low wages, and posed a major economic threat. Anyone who looked or acted differently was feared.
  • In 1893, Walter E. Fernald, president of the American Association on Mental Deficiency, stated that institutional care was economical and conservative, not just charitable. According to Fernald, "each hundred dollars invested [in institutions] now saves a thousand [dollars] in the next generation." This served to financially justify the building of more institutions. In the late 1800s, the annual cost per resident in a state institution was between $150 and $200.
  • By 1900, one out of every seven Americans was foreign-born.
  • In 1913 the United States Public Health Service administered the newly invented Binet IQ test to immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Professional researchers recorded that "79% of the Italians, 80% of the Hungarians, 83% of the Jews, and 87% of the Russians are feeble-minded." The validity of the test was not challenged and test results served to reinforce negative images of immigrants.
  • Around the turn of the century a xenophobic hysteria focused on racial minorities as well as persons with disabilities. Government-supported actions that excluded and segregated African Americans and persons with disabilities evoked, reinforced, and legitimated public and private prejudices.
  • In 1905 in France, Dr. Alfred Binet and Dr. Theodore Simon developed an intelligence scale of 30 items that was intended to distinguish between school-aged children who were of subnormal and normal intelligence. There were three principles for use laid down by the tests' inventor, Alfred Binet. Rule 1: The scores do not define anything innate or permanent. Rule 2: The scale is a rough guide for identifying and helping learning-disabled children. Rule 3: Low scores don't mean a child is innately incapable.
  • In 1917, Dr. Goddard and his associates administered a version of the Binet test to 1.75 million army recruits. The results found that 40% of the white male population was feebleminded.
  • In 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act.
  • The late 19th and first quarter of the 20th century saw the rise and consequences of the Eugenics Movement, which advocated " ... the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding." So-called "feeblemindedness" was thought to be hereditary, and was eventually blamed for most of society's burdens. Proponents of eugenics, many of whom were doctors, advocated sterilization of persons with disabilities. They believed that if people with disabilities reproduced, they would eventually ruin the human species.
  • Social Darwinism was also on the rise. This theory stated that the evolution of biological species came about by a process of natural selection, and also governed the affairs of society and social evolution. Social Darwinism was promoted by Herman Spencer and widely accepted. Spencer was optimistic about the improvement of human beings and believed that human relationships could be reduced to scientific principles. Darwin's observations on the natural order of plants and animals reinforced Spencer's belief that the social order was governed by the "survival of the fittest." This belief helped to justify forced sterilizations, marriage restrictions, and the warehousing of individuals with disabilities in institutions.
  • Compulsory public school attendance laws were enacted during the late 19th and early 20th century. As more children attended public schools, teachers noticed more pupils who were "slow and backward." Teachers began to call for persons with special training and for special classes to take care of these students.