Successful Theories and Practices From Russia: Can They Be Adopted in the United States?

Published in: "AAMR News & Notes", (1992). Vol. 5, # 6. p. 5.

In our continuing search for innovative strategies, programs and techniques in working with mentally retarded individuals, we may draw upon those practical experiences and theoretical concepts developed in other countries, specifically in Russia.

Unlike in the United States, in Russia there is a special term which refers to the research and practice of the treatment, upbringing, and education of individuals with mental retardation. This term is "defectology": it has no direct equivalent in English and to an American ear is harsh sounding, to say the least. In Russian, however, it does not carry such a negative connotation. Defectology is a combined discipline, which includes relevant branches of medicine, psychology, and pedagogy.

Identification, treatment, and education of individuals with mental retardation in Russia are different in many ways from those in the United States. Congenital mental retardation ("oligophrenia") is described as an impairment of all cognitive functions, without a progressive course, due to pervasive organic injury of the hemispheric structure. Severity levels are: debils (mild retardation), imbecils (moderate), and idiots (profound). There is a further classification into excitable and inhibited types. The basic methods of screening are medical examinations and observations of relevant activities. The person's cognitive development is determined by using methods closely resembling those called "dynamic assessment" in the USA. In evaluation, the stress is placed on certain qualitative indicators, such as cognitive strategies employed by the client, type and character of mistakes, ability to benefit from the help provided by the examiner, emotional reactions to success and failure. No IQ tests are used in an identification of different levels of mental retardation. Unlike the American practices, a psychological evaluation in Russia is considered to be an auxiliary to a general medico-pedagogical procedure and no more than a means of differential diagnosis in some questionable cases.

There are three basic types of institutions for individuals with mental retardation in Russia: residential clinics, boarding schools, and special day schools. Individuals with profound and severe mental retardation live in residential clinics, where they are heavily medicated and simply vegetate under the close supervision of welfare authorities. Boarding schools and special day schools are designed for mild and moderately mentally retarded children.

In boarding schools, a student's learning is monitored for all waking hours; closer relationships are usually established between school personnel (teachers and counselors) and handicapped children; extensive supportive services are available from health care professionals on the premises. The Russian approach is to provide intensive training within specialized institutions with staff prepared to deal with the specific disability. From the most rigorous Western standards, education and treatment of students in boarding and special day schools are rated from good to excellent.

Regular schools in Russia have no classes for children with MR, as schools in the US do. The provision of educational and social activities for students with MR with their non-retarded peers is practically unknown. The ideas of mainstreaming or a less restrictive environment which are so popular in the US do not fit into the prevailing defectological theory that only a truly differentiated learning environment can fully develop a MR child's cognitive skills and overall personality. It is believed that only in the specially manipulated setting will the entire staff be able to exclusively serve the individual needs of a handicapped child. It is important to point out, that graduates

from special day or boarding schools for MR are well prepared for the outside world and, by and large, do not show the dramatic lack of social experience, which may be expected from the students in segregated, close schools.

In as much as we care about educational provision for individuals with mental retardation, we should seek out those areas in which we can learn from the international experience. Due to the dramatic political changes in the former Soviet Union, the opportunities exist for cooperative research projects, internships, and subject matter conferences. It promises to be a mutually rewarding experience when data and theories collected in both countries will serve as a reference base, as a resource warehouse, as an argument in discussions, as an example of a time-tested practical approach, or even as a model for strategic development.