Monday, November 18, 2013

The Vilification of Medical Terms: Mentally Retarded

Would you be offended if I called you an idiot?  How about an imbecile?  A moron? Retarded?  Intellectually disabled?

The last one is the current "politically correct" term being used for someone with lower than average IQ and deficits in adaptive abilities.

Down's Syndrome and Fragile X and thousands of other causes exist.  Whether it is due to genetics, premature birth, complications in delivery, drug exposure, abuse, neglect or other causes - there are many people who do not have the same mental or cognitive abilities as others.

How can we help them?  Usually it requires some intervention; people, funding, resources, advocacy groups, etc...

In order to write laws and school protocols and medical diagnoses and treatment plans, we need terms.

In the middle 20th century we used the term Cretin.
Then we used Idiot.  Yes, it was originally a medical term derived from the ancient Greek, “idio”, meaning “person lacking professional skill” or “mentally deficient person incapable of ordinary reasoning”.
In fact, until 2007 the term Idiot was still used in the California State Law to define people not capable of committing any form of crime.  The wording was then changed to “persons who are mentally incapacitated.”

Then we used Imbecile; then Moron (which the British replaced with "Feeble-Minded")

Then came the 1960's.  We decided to leave behind those negative and derogatory terms and enter the age of acceptance and understanding.  A term was decided upon that would not offend anyone: Mental Retardation

The term was praised and hailed for being modern and non-pejorative.
It came from the Latin word retardare, "to make slow, delay, keep back, or hinder." The terms "retard" or "retarded" had never been negative or demeaning, they had simply meant, "to slow down."

But - as happened with all terms describing people of any mental disability - "retard" was used to persecute, to demean, and to insult others. 

In 2009 a bill called "Rosa's Law" was introduced.  It's purpose was to replace the term "mental retardation" in legal documents with the term "intellectual disability." President Obama said he would work to have the term 'mentally retarded' officially removed entirely from the health and education code.

"Rosa's Law" passed the House and the Senate UNANIMOUSLY.  (How often does that happen?)
It was signed into law by President Obama on Oct 5th 2010. 

So now we have the term "Intellectual Disability."

How long will it take for kids on the playground to start calling each other "I.D" or something like that?  How long will it take for this new term to become demeaning, insulting, and persecutory.

50 years from now, I fully expect there to be a new law - which will be hailed and praised by all, will pass the house and senate unanimously, and which will outlaw the term "intellectual disability" in order to replace it with something else.

In the end - do our laws and replacements make any difference?  Are we making mental deficiency more accepted and understood?  Are we helping kids be nice, not make fun of each other, and not call each other names? 
Or are we spending millions of dollars and man hours simply trading out terms, which will have to be changed again in another 50 years?


johanna said...

:) I like this post. I have a kind of intellectual handicap. I'm learning disabled. When I was watching the Hangover Part 2 , Stu's future father-in-law makes a terrible speech about him at a giant dinner. In the speech he talks about how Stu reminds him of his brother...who is learning disabled and lives in a group home. The whole theater cracked up including me. I really think your right that we could turn any medical term into an insult. I just re-watched that scene on you tube from the movie. It's called "the toast." Still funny!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post, thanks. Vilification of formerly benign descriptors doesn't end with mental deficiency. E.g., there's juvenile delinquent, where "delinquent" originally meant something that is past due, or those who are negligent in doing their duty. Now it connotes a juvenile criminal. Many racial and ethnic terms become tarnished over time as well.

Maybe the lesson is that we can't change how people feeling about each other by dictating how they express themselves. Or it's no guarantee anyway.