Sticks and Stones: Intellectual Disability
By Pamela Beeman
I am of two minds about politically correct speech and labeling. Mind One: I notice that the words in the hymnal at my church have been changed from terms like “men” and “sons” to more genderneutral language, and it can bring tears to my eyes that someone cared enough to consider how exclusive those words can be. Mind Two: As a linguist (oh yes, I had a second major), I know that the masculine terms are meant to encompass humankind as a whole … and the poetry reader in me thinks the sound of the words is sometimes awkward (what rhymes with “his/her?”). Mind Two: While we might complain that it seems like unimportant nitpicking … Mind One: Anytime we can change our words to be more inclusive and less hurtful, that’s a good thing, right?
I had just finished classroom lessons with all nine of the eighth grade English classes in my junior high. They had read Flowers for Algernon, and I took advantage of the opportunity to talk to them about IQ, since it figures so prominently in the story, and what IQ means and doesn’t mean. I had included a discussion of the term mentally retarded and pointed out that those words were not originally pejorative; that “retarded” just means slowed down. (“Like fire-retardant?” asked a student. “Like ritardando in music?” asked another.) The term mentally retarded was actually coined in order to be more sensitive.
What makes the words hurtful is how they’re used. Every time somebody sneers, “Hey retard!” or asks, “What are you, retarded?” there is, so to speak, another brick in the wall. We can keep changing the words, but if the meanspirited keep casting them as epithets, our efforts will be in vain.
I told the eighth graders that the original, clinical medical terms for degrees of mental retardation were idiot, imbecile, and moron. They were as shocked as I expected: “Why would any doctor say such hurtful things to a person with mental retardation?” They weren’t originally insults! But as soon as they were used that way, the words went down the slippery slope of ugliness until now only the most completely out-of-it would imagine using them as anything descriptive. Although I do recall, back when my daughter Alice was born, researching the literature on Down syndrome (That was using ERIC, anybody remember that? Before Google?) and getting back a treatise on “Mongoloid Idiocy.” Wow, isn’t that just what a new mother wants to hear?
I’m moved to make a linguistic prediction. We can catch changes in language as they happen sometimes (“a whole ‘nother” is a fave. My pet peeve is the loss of “there’re” in favor of “there’s” even when it’s plural: “There’s books on the table” grates on my ear unimaginably. Still, fighting changes in a living language is a losing battle.). I predict that one of the words already on the slippery slope is “special.” I personally use “special-needs” as an all-purpose descriptor of students or individuals with various exceptionalities, but we’ve all heard the phrase “Isn’t that special?” spoken with such sarcasm and facial grimacing that the intent is clear … and negative. I think within a generation the word “special” will be right up there with “retarded.”
All that said, I’m happy about Rosa’s Law and vastly prefer the term intellectual disability. I am OK with never again having to confront the term mental retardation with the parent of a student I have tested. But let’s be clear. In the updated words of one of my favorite posters: Sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can really hurt us.
I do take some pride in occasional announcements that I have three kids in college. For one thing, it’s a great way to decline the requests of various solicitors. “Call me in a couple of years; right now I have three kids in college.” “I’d love to help you out but I have three kids in college; in fact, might you consider donating….” Works every time. \So I was putting younger son’s rent money in his account. He’s a sophomore at San Diego State, living in a house with no less than seven roommates. I just do an electronic transfer through the credit union; I have joint accounts with all the kids. And I don’t always do this, but this month I scrolled down the withdrawals, deposits, and ATM uses. The first thing my eyes beheld was a charge of $65 toSan Diego Tattoos and Piercings. Ack! Ack! I fired off an e-mail begging son to tell me he had bought a tattoo or a piercing for someone else. I’m very fond of that skin of his, having spent significant time gestating, and then caring for it. The return e-mail was not reassuring: “It’s a surprise.” I can’t wait to see him at the holidays. Ha! Ha!
A friend who has four boys said her son had just gotten a tattoo and it was over $300 so whatever it was, it couldn’t be very big. I found this comforting.
Pamela Beeman has been a school psychologist for 30 years and lives in Chico, CA.