Education of People with Mental Disabilities

by the Brothers of Charity in Belgium:

A Historical Approach


Since they were founded in Belgium in 1807, the Brothers of Charity have spread over twenty-six countries in four continents. Their apostolate is still in the line with the charism of their founder Peter Joseph Triest (1760-1836); that is educating and taking care of the poor, the disabled, and those who are marginalized by society. One of their very concerns is the service to the people with mental disabilities. Nearly two hundred years after they were founded, the Brothers of Charity have many institutions for people with mental disabilities in many countries.

The purpose of this text is to describe a small part of the bigger picture of the world wide service of the Brothers of Charity and is focused on the service to the mentally disabled in Belgium. A historical approach is used in order to get a better understanding of the evolution of the service.


Many terms are used to describe that a person has mental state different from the general population. Mentally handicapped, mentally disabled, special need ... no matter what label assigned to a person different from the general population, it cannot give the whole picture or describe the meaning of People with Mental Disabilities. There are so many categories and classification in the mental dysfunction. The term People with Mental Disabilities will be used in this paper, and it covers every state of mental dysfunctioning.

The early works of the Brothers of Charity

Since the beginning of their existence, the Brothers of Charity have a special attention to those who are marginalized by society. Peter Joseph Triest, the founder was a diocesan priest who had a special concern to the disabled in his parish, for those who did not receive appropriate care.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, the Brothers of Charity were also involved in the care and education of children with severe and moderate intellectual disabilities. They eventually developed a distinct teaching method, influenced by functional psychology, that centered on sensorial training and was grounded in practical experience and experimentation (Wall, Loncke, and Smith, 2004). The care for mentally disabled by the Brothers of Charity can be divided into three periods of different treatments. The Children’s Yard (1857-1901), The Open Section (1877-1907), and The Children’s Asylums (established since 1892) (Stockman, 1994).

The period of the Children’s Yard started when one famous inhabitant of Gent, who had a big influence in the Brothers' service to the disabled, Dr. Joseph Guislain (1797-1860) founded an asylum in 1850 for psychiatric patients. He was thinking also about the education of the sick and the people with mental disabilities. He is considered also as the founder of the psychiatric care in Belgium. In 1856, in his annual reports of the commission of which he was a member, he mentioned explicitly for the first time the importance of the education for the people with mental disabilities. In 1857, a section meant for children with mental disabilities or children’s yard was built attached to the asylum in Gent. It was the only place in Belgium where mentally disabled received some form of learning and education (Stockman, 1994).

While the Children’s Yard aimed to take care and educate the disabled from the poorer classes, there was a need to educate disabled of the better classes. To achieve that goal the Brothers of Charity opened a section for people with mental disabilities attached to the Institute for the deaf in Rooigem in 1877. Though the section never achieved a big success, it gave a special mark to the services of the Brothers of Charity, because the method invented by Bro. Bonaventura, the leader, became the starting point of the education of the people with mental disabilities, which was deepened and developed by Bro. Ebergist years later. This period is then called Open Section.

As the services and needs of education for people with mental disabilities were growing, and the Children’s Yard could not be extended locally, the Brothers of Charity came with an idea to build an asylum. The first asylum was built in 1892 in Manage. It was followed by the second asylum in Tessenderlo and then a third one in Lummen. This period is called as Children’s Asylum.

Among the members of the Brothers of Charity in the early twentieth century, the name Bro. Ebergist (1887-1943) is well known as the inventor of a method of education to people with mental disabilities. His whole method was aimed at preparing these youth for proper employment in the society (Stockman, 2002). As he worked as a teacher at St. Joseph Institute in Gent, he started many experiments in order to complete and improve educational material for the disabled, which his predecessor has started. He wrote many articles about education of the disabled. Together with his colleagues, he carried out autopsies, trying to find the organic cause of mental abnormalities (Stockman, 2002).

Today’s Apostolate

Nowadays, the Brothers of Charity with its many institutes continues on working for the people with mental disabilities. Together with co-workers, government, and other institution are trying to answer the needs of education for the disabled generally and for the people with mental disabilities specifically.


The needs in the care and education of the people with mental disabilities are growing. The Brothers of Charity, as a religious institution, have a great and special concern for the disabled, and keep on working in that field. The growing needs in this field require a more professional and proper way to answer them. There is an evolution in the form of service, it follows the needs of the time.


American with Disabilities Act. (2002). What is the ADA: Definition of Disability [Electronic version]. ADA and Technical Assistance Center.

Stockman, R. (1994). Orthopedagogische Zorg in de Diensten van de Broeders van Liefde. Gent: Brothers of Charity Publications.

Stockman, R. (2002). Ethos. Gent: Brothers of Charity Publications.

Wall, S., Loncke, F., and Smith, N. (2004). Collaborative Training for Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Developing World. Collaborative Training. Washington D. C.: CUA Press