Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Mental retardation" vs. "intellectually disabled"

I'm not sure I agree with the current push to remove the phrase "mental retardation" from the national vocabulary. Yes, it's come to have negative connotations, but any phrase that means the same thing will get those negative associations, too. "Mentally retarded" is already the result of this process: it's a euphemism for "imbecile", "moron", or "idiot". We need some phrase we can use to describe the phenomenon. When my son is doing something unacceptable in public, and I say, "Pardon me, he's a special needs kid," people don't know what the hell I'm talking about. I suspect "intellectual disability" would lead to the same "huh?" reaction. But when I say, "I'm sorry, he's mentally retarded," it hits with the proper impact. People get it, or at least get something close enough that they know they should apply a different standard of behavior.

I do not like it when people use "retarded" as a generic insult or as a substitute for "fucked up", and will often gently point this out when I hear it. I feel the same way when kids use "gay" as an insult: it doesn't really do any good to come up with a new word for "gay" that isn't used as an insult. What we have to do is show people that it's not wrong to be gay, and that it's hurtful and destructive to use the term as if it is. Similarly, it is not wrong to be mentally retarded, and to use "retard" as an insult is cruel.

If people started using "cancerous" as a pejorative, the solution would not be to rename cancer "abnormal cell replication" in all federal statutes. It would be to socially penalize people who were insensitive enough to turn it into a term of abuse. I guess I feel that way about "mental retardation". It doesn't seem to me that the term is "only used to demean and insult people" as the ARC posting I link to states. But maybe this is a bigger problem outside my own social circle.

6 comments:

Bjetsey said...

I hear you, "intellectually disabled" is a weird term. It does seem like everything these days that is not typical is referred to as a disability though. What about "mentally disabled"?

the other lion said...

I completely agree. I have been struggling with how to articulate this for months, but you've just done it for me. Brilliant!

Sarah said...

I agree, too, and have thought about this for awhile. However, if the move to replace "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability" is coming from folks with an intellectual disability, then their right to decide what their "label" should be must be respected. I think reclamation of stigmatizing terms is great, but it needs to be driven by the people who've been the objects of stigma and discrimination. On the other hand, I too have been frustrated when people don't understand "my son has special needs" or "my son has an intellectual/developmental disability". "Mental retardation" is understood with a lot less explanation...

Momma Mayhem said...

I agree. I have stated to some people that my son has mental retardation as a result of Fragile X Syndrome and I have been told I was not being kind to refer to my child as retarded. Well that is one of his official medical diagnoses.
Slow, intellectually challenged, and special aren't what is on the paperwork that qualifies him for services. If I were to correctly lay out all of the nuisances of how my "special" child is both a genius and severely deficited in various ways to varying degrees on any given day there would not be enough words, or adjectives to describe him appropriately.

I agree there is not enough time when he is screaming and launching a cup in a restaurant to say "I'm so sorry my son has sensory processing disorder related to his intellectual deficit and neurological dysfunction" I'm lucky if I get out "DUCK"!
I give you this example...I once told a kind gentleman and his wife that they may want to pick another table rather than sit so close to my son as he could be a handful in restaurants and I wouldnt want to see their meal disrupted. We were at Outback Steakhouse to see a friend off to Iraq for his third tour of duty. 30 well wishers, noisey, hot, someone ordered fish. My son over ate french fries, smelled the fish (a sensory aversion of his). My son launched Thomas the Tank Engine at the man's forehead and spontaneously vomitted on the table. I turned to the man and said, "Yeah, thats what I was trying to say to you." Maybe if I had said, you might not want to sit there, my son is retarded and can act up he would have been spared the experience.

Momma Mayhem said...

*that should have been nuances not nuisances LOL spellchecker.

Lyssa said...

Thank you for this post.

It's hard because so many people unthinkingly use "retarded" as a pejorative. As the mom of typically developing kids, I feel like it's less acceptable for me to use the term "mentally retarded." So I tend to say "developmentally disabled." I think parents of affected kids have some claim to using the terms they choose, in part for the reasons you articulate. What are your feelings about the language other people use?

Also, one of my sons has a cleft lip and I've noticed that some people, particularly in the craniofacial world, use the term "birth anomaly" rather than "birth defect." I get why, and we've taken pains to describe his cleft in neutral terms, but there's something about "birth anomaly" that feels pretty euphemistic and nicey-nice to me. As I think about it, it's partly for the reasons Momma Mayhem describes. He wouldn't have had one surgery and be facing several more if his lip/mouth/nose were normal. On the other hand, I feel like there's nothing defective about him. Argh, language.