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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Soapbox: Mental Retardation...Slur, or Diagnosis?

I recently was criticized for referring to one of my cherubinis as being diagnosed with mental retardation.  The listener was offended that I would call I child I loved mentally retarded.  I have had that reaction before.  I get annoyed in return.  Here is my view. My post is late because I struggled whether sharing this opinion would cost me readers.  But it is my opinion, as the adoptive parent and foster parent of wonderful, loving, delightful individuals who are, by the way, mentally retarded.  I offer no cute pictures today... just a plea to stop hiding and shaming.

Mental Retardation is NOT a slur.  It is a factual diagnosis, based on definitive medical criteria.  It is a fact. A fact is different than a fault. It has no shame attached or implied. Sure, it can be made into a slur.  Almost any fact can.  [Ex: A girl can be insulted by the inflection in a voice saying: "What can you expect.... she is a blonde after all.

I believe that as long as we keep something secret or speak it only in whispers, it will be something that everyone thinks is shameful.  Mental Retardation is a condition, but it not shameful.  A person who is diagnosed with mental retardation according the the DSMR medical criteria is not at fault....has not done something wrong, should not be ashamed.  It is the way we react to mental retardation that is shameful. It is when someone uses the words as an insult that we should be ashamed. We need to demystify mental retardation and take it out of the closet into the light.

When we invent different names for things to avoid naming them we imply shame, guilt, embarassment. I have watched "special education" be relabeled "instructional support, ""mentally retarded" be relabeled "developmentally delayed," and the list goes on. We need to address the root of the problem, the combination of misinformation, lack of informaion, and good old-fashioned bullying.

What we speak of in whispers is perceived as an embarrassment, a shame.  We used to speak of epilepsy, diabetes, autism, and more in whispers.  Now students explain their diagnosis to their classmates to demystify, engage empathy, and move on.  It is time we did the same with mental retardation.  It is a fact.  It is a medical diagnosis.  It is NOT something to be ashamed of.  It is something that needs to be understood, admitted, and out in the open if the children [and adults] who live with that condition are to receive the proper support and understanding.


  1. I understand why people are upset.
    I understand why you say it.

    I think people feel mental retardation in and of itself is not a diagnosis. I think (because I am guessing) that people feel there is a deeper cause for mental retardation. As in, they want specifics. Like Autism or Epilepsy. They want to understand and throwing MR over it makes them not understand because you are not answering their question. To me it is none of their business. We as a society think we are so entitled to know everything about everyone else.
    Anyway, sometimes change is good. After all, kids were not able to embrace these things or get the services that are available now 20 years ago.
    I agree it is the difference between using as a slur and using as something that the doctor has said - but saying that, I also don't agree with all doctors lol

  2. Thank you Mer. I understand what you mean by wanting answers and the dilemma whether to give them. I always teach my kiddos that just because someone asks something does not require you to answer. Having said that, one of my kiddos is able to and has become comfortable explaining that: "When I was born the cord got wrapped around my neck. I was lucky that the doctors helped me breathe again, but unlucky because while they were doing that my brain didn't get enough air to help it grow all the way. I have a really hard time learning stuff, but other than that I'm just like you."
    Not all kids can do that, nor should they necessarily. Thanks for posting and for visiting!

  3. Thank you Gail for posting this! Because of the way so many of us hear the term "mental retardation" it's easy to understand why it is not recognized as an actual diagnosis as opposed to a slur.

    To quote a Medscape Reference* article on Mental Retardation the diagnosis is defined as a person having at least two of the following criteria:

    "Significantly subaverage intellectual functioning - An intelligence quotient (IQ) of approximately 70 or below

    Concurrent deficits or impairments in adaptive functioning in at least 2 of the following areas: communication, self-care, home living, social/interpersonal skills, use of community resources, self-direction, functional academic skills, work, leisure, health, and safety

    Onset before age 18 years"

    The article goes on to list some of the known causes. Perhaps if more people are brave enough to speak on the issue we can stop referring, as you suggest, to mental retardation in whispers.