Services in the United States for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were based upon an institutional model from the mid-nineteenth century until the 1970s. The institutionalized population peaked at about 200,000 in 1967. In the 1970s, civil rights litigation on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities started the process of deinstitutionalization and the transition to community-based services.

Around the same time, the right to special education was also established; this achievement was equally significant because many people with intellectual disabilities had previously been routinely excluded from educational services. From its inception in 1972, NWW has been part of the movement to provide excellent residential and support services in the community to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and to support their right to participate fully in the community.

For more information about the history of services, see "People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: A Brief History of Care and Services."