The prevailing attitudes toward the retarded throughout history have ranged from reverence to contempt. Martin Luther considered them as persons in whom "the Devil sits where their souls should have been." Concurrent to that thought was the view that the retarded person either was blessed or unusually wise.
Care of retarded persons also has varied over the years. Workers in the 19th century began formal education programs for the handicapped, attempting to improve the intellectual and social adjustment of the retarded. Between 1870 and 1920, U.S. care for the retarded regressed. Several states passed laws requiring sexual segregation and forced sterilization. Experts routinely recommended the institutionalization of all retarded children.
Liberalized attitudes began in the 1920s, as did the first out-patient and community service programs. Federal law now guarantees all handicapped persons, including the retarded, the right to an education. The effects of the current approach are the subject of intense debate within the field.