The Disservice of Treating Disabled Persons as Children

The belief that disabled people are incapable of surviving in real-life situations is belittling and harmful. Many persons who are mentally disabled can meet the challenges of surviving in society. Treating adults like children only prepares them for a lifetime of dependence and being institutionalized.

by Jack Bragen


A stereotype of persons with mental illness promulgated by mental health professionals is that we are of lesser competence, lesser ability and lesser intelligence than they. This serves as a prior assumption so that the condescension from treatment professionals is apparent from the very start of contact.

The idea that we are “less” than normal is often not accurate, but may eventually become part of someone’s belief system after it has been drummed constantly into their psyche for years or decades.

Mental health caregivers commonly believe that we ought to be in protected situations because we are not ready for “the real deal” in life. This attitude of caring for persons with mental illness and not letting them do things on their own produces children in the bodies of adults.

Most of the popular models of mental health treatment espouse “sheltered” situations in which the disabled person is protected from the harsh realities of mainstream existence. I object to this. This type of “protection” only prepares the disabled person for a lifetime of being dependent on institutionalization. This is no life.

The belief that someone with mental illness is incapable of surviving in “real life situations” is belittling and harmful. Despite having a disability, many persons with mental illness are up to the challenge of surviving in society.

Of course, public benefits should be offered. The “survival” I am talking about is where a person handles their own financial, medical and social affairs, lives in a situation in which they have real interactions with real people, and is the guide in their own existence.

This may include dealing with a supervisor, business associate, or landlord who is private and is not part of the mental health treatment system, and paying one’s own bills and rent with one’s own checking account. A mental health consumer needs to be involved in shopping for one’s own groceries, being responsible for one’s own meals, putting gas in one’s own car and seeing that it is maintained, even if a parent is helping financially with affording the car.

The survival I am talking about, then, is not a situation of going off disability and other assistance. It is merely no longer living as a child for whom someone else must make all the decisions. I am not talking about pretending there is no disability. I am saying that persons with mental illness can and should be encouraged to live as people who are competent.

It is wrong to strip away people’s dignity and independence under the guise of mental health “treatment.” Art by F.A. Fitzgerald, reprinted from Madness Network News Reader


The clubhouse approach of most mental health agencies doesn’t prepare people for this. Their assumption is that most of the people walking through their doors must have everything done for them.

I’ve dealt with handling my own affairs since the time I was 18 and diagnosed with schizophrenia. I have also dealt with threatening situations of standing up to criminals, and of refusing to be a victim. I have dealt with relationships, and I have been married for 15 years.

I deal with driving and with public transportation. I deal with the budgeting of my meager income on a continuous basis. I take care of pets and I take them to a veterinarian when they are sick. Under no circumstances should I be deemed “incompetent.” Other persons with mental illness can do the same.

You are not doing a disabled person any favors when you attempt to protect them from life. It perpetuates the myth that we are made of lesser material than that of a “normal person” and it makes us unprepared for life’s difficult truths that we all must someday face.

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