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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Not "Mentally Retarded" Anymore.

In the short number of years I've been teaching, I've seen disability labels come, go, return, then vanish again as people invest a lot of time and money in deciding what sounds the least offensive. Some of the decisions confound me... About 10 years ago, a child could have been identified as "Emotionally Disturbed", then it switched to "Severe Behavior Handicap", and now it's back to "Emotionally Disturbed"... Doesn't that just sound like someone who kills kittens in between smearing feces on walls and stabbing voodoo dolls of his mother? It's also abbreviated to "ED", which is rather unfortunate as that is also used for Erectile Dysfunction. Not that "Severe Behavior Handicap" sounds that much better... In these days of inclusion of students with handicaps into regular classes, you could imagine a regular ed. teacher looking at that label and getting a tad upset that they can't bring pepper spray to school to defend herself.

So what term could describe the disability without making everyone leap to hideous conclusions? Emotionally Unstable? Nah, sounds like a woman going through menopause. Appropriate Behavior Deficit? That could apply to far too many kids... Socially Handicapped? That one could apply to me and my friends, to be honest...

and back to And as for the mentally challenged... It's gone from "Mental retardation" to "Cognitive Disability" and back to "Mental Retardation", though some still hold onto "CD", but then no one knows what the hell you're talking about until you clarify: "It means he's mentally retarded."

When I have the annual meeting with the parents to go over the goals for the student, I like to have the student present. It's only fair since we're talking about him/her that he/she should be there, but then we get to the signature page where the child's disability is written... Often, the kids I've taught who are classified as "Mentally Retarded" had no idea they were because they'd never attended these meetings before and never seen any forms about themselves. Some of them don't notice the print and I'm relieved. One did and asked me what "Cognitively Disabled" meant. I explained to her that although she was smart, she sometimes needed a little more time than others to think things through. She was satisfied. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the fates that at the time we weren't using the other term.

To these kids, "Mentally Retarded" means drooling, slow speech, and spastic movements. It would never occur to them that the kid next to them who has ten less IQ points than them is "retarded". What a fine line. One number means you're labeled for life, but at least you get the support you need to get by. The other number means you'll most likely not get much help and will probably fail. What a price to pay...

I'm reminded of the kid who got "cured" of being retarded... Simple. One state deemed an IQ of 80 to be "Mentally Retarded", another state selected 70 to be the lucky number. He moved from one state to the other and VOILA! He was cured, gods be praised.

The label is there for convenience, but it does mean that kids get pigeon-holed before they even open their mouths. We could define a child by their strengths and weaknesses and interests to get a better idea, but then isn't it much quicker to say "Emotionally Disturbed with bi-polar"? Obviously, the label is also essential for funding purposes as schools get more funding per student with an identified disability.

Anyway, I strayed from the fact that I wanted to share this article on a bill to remove the term "Mentally retarded" from State Law in Virginia. I'm not too crazy about their suggestions for better terms, and if it's going to cost $75,000 to make the change, I hope they pick a good 'un.


Anonymous said...

I think we should all switch to Tim Henson's term for the Mentally Retarded... "The Unsavory"

TeacherLady said...

Tim Henson for president! :) He's one sick puppy that I'd have fun hanging out with.

Kate said...

Hi, I'm a Candian special needs worker and just wanted to chime in on the term "mentally retarded". I suppose Canada is a little more progressive than the States, as we've been using the terms "special needs" or "person with developmental/physical disabilities" for as long as i can remember. Personally, I bristle when i hear the term "mentally retarded" being thrown around because of the stigma and negative connotations attached to that term.