John F. Kennedy photo

Remarks at the 13th Annual Convention of the National Association for Retarded Children.

October 24, 1963

Mr. Fettinger, Doctor, Mr. Secretary, ladies and gentlemen:

I want to express a very warm welcome to you here in Washington, and to tell you how appreciative I am, speaking on behalf of the American people, for all that this association has done to not only care for children who had no care, to assist mothers who might otherwise have had children born to them who are mentally retarded, and to bring to the attention of the United States the great gap in our activities in this area.

The United States Government, through the National Institutes of Health, has for a good many years poured hundreds of millions of dollars--through the work of Congressman Fogarty, Senator Ribicoff, Lister Hill and the others--into a whole variety of great attacks on our major health problems. But I do think it fair to say that in the field of mental retardation we have been behind, and I am, as you are, familiar with those statistics which show what prenatal care, what careful work, what assistance to mothers can do in other countries.

There is no reason why our statistics should be two or three times as high as those of Sweden. And having seen in my own experience cases, as we did for example last year, of two sisters, one of whom is doomed--two years apart--one of whom is doomed to live a life of retardation, the other, because of the scientific discoveries made in the interval, to live a happy life-there is no effort that we could make, I think, more rewarding to ourselves as well as to those we are trying to help.

I have just signed into law the first of two major legislative proposals recommended to the Congress early this year designed to seek out the causes of mental retardation and mount a sustained attack upon them. The second bill has already passed the Congress and I am looking forward to signing that next week. Taken together, they can provide the tools for a major breakthrough in our effort to solve the complex mysteries of mental retardation. They establish a new priority for this effort. They offer hope to the millions who are afflicted and those who would be afflicted if we did not act.

Today we stand on the threshold of major discoveries in the life sciences. Albert Einstein once said that it would be a great cause of regret and would put all mankind into jeopardy if the life sciences did not keep up with the tremendous advances of the physical sciences. This is nowhere more apparent than in the field of mental retardation.

We have conquered the atom, but we have not yet begun to make a major assault upon the mysteries of the human mind. In spite of the dramatic discoveries in medicine, the number of mentally retarded is increasing. Whooping cough, diphtheria, scarlet fever, have all but been eliminated, but every year 126,000 children are born who are or who will become retarded. Parents frequently must face decisions in hospitals of what therapy should be adopted to preserve a child's life, knowing that that therapy may bring about mental retardation or blindness. Almost 5,000 of these children are so severely retarded that they will never be able to care for their own needs. This tragic human waste which, of course, affects not only the child but the family which is involved, can and must be stopped.

I think we have an obligation of country, especially a country as rich as ours, especially a country which has so much money to spend on so many things which may be desirable, but may be not essential in every case--we certainly should have the resources to spend to make a major effort to see if we can block this, stop it, and cure it. It is appropriate that the National Association for Retarded Children has decided to present its award of merit to Dr. Masland, who has distinguished himself both by research into the causes of mental retardation and is the administrator of Federal programs to help the retarded. He has provoked scientists into greater efforts. He has increased public awareness. He has isolated the critical needs so that there can be a focus of attention on them.

In the words of the inscription, on behalf of the National Association for Retarded Children, which as an association has done all of the things that I have described, in the case of Dr. Masland, I would like to present this award to a "scientist, humanitarian, pioneer," for his achievements in alleviating problems of mental retardation and the prevention of its occurrence in future generations-the Director of the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Blindness, your distinguished guest of today, Richard L. Masland.

Note: The President spoke at a luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. In his opening words he referred to John G. Fettinger, president of the Association, Dr. Richard Masland, Director, National Institute on Neurological Diseases and Blindness, and Anthony J. Celebrezze, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

For the remarks of the President on signing the bills to which he referred, see Items 434 and 447.

John F. Kennedy, Remarks at the 13th Annual Convention of the National Association for Retarded Children. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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