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Describing people with disabilities: It’s not about the words

Posted March 13, 2013, at 1:50 p.m.

The debate rages nationally and locally about how to label people with “diminished capacities,” including whether to label them at all, what terms to use and how we perceive them regardless of the term used.

Lawrence Downes wrote an emotional OpEd in the New York Times on March 2, describing the pain caused to people with intellectual disabilities by the use of the term “retarded.” In his essay, he quoted John Franklin Stephens, a blogger with such disabilities, but failed to reference the more general problem in our society for any people who diverge from the mainstream.

The term “mentally retarded” was itself a euphemism that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a more acceptable substitute for the prior terms of “moron,” “imbecile” and “idiot” — the most notorious of which was “Mongolian idiot,” then “mongolism,” which were the supposedly benign terms used by psychological practitioners, physicians and educators at the beginning of the 20th century after Alfred Binet’s invention of the IQ test.

Starting in the 1970s, the term “Down syndrome,” “developmentally delayed,” then “developmentally disabled” came into favor. Of late, the terms used most often describe handicaps as “challenges,” which implies that, with sufficient effort, the challenge can be overcome.

This is problematic in the case of people with assorted weaknesses in the intellect arena because there is no method, drug or treatment that has shown the ability to substantially lift the intellectual ability of persons born with those deficits — although they can learn a range of skills and many have satisfying, independent lives.

It is important for us to be thoughtful about how we describe and label people who are divergent from the norm in any way. But I firmly believe that this is not really an issue of terminology.

I see the issue as a greater social problem, that of xenophobia, the human fear of strangers that may have had adaptive value when we were about to drop from trees. We do not accept, trust or even, in many cases, tolerate people different from the norm. We mock very short and very tall people, very smart and very un-smart people, women who are athletic and men who are artistic, very light-skinned and dark-skinned people depending on the specific culture.

We discriminate against fat (I mean obese … no, overweight … no, I mean, people with metabolic syndrome … uh …), ugly, exceptionally beautiful or any other slightly different type of human being.

This isn’t about words. Downey quoted Stephens, who said, “We are aware when all the rest of you stop and just look at us. We are aware when you look at us and just say, ‘unh huh.’”

It’s about rejection, ostracism and shunning of anyone who does not conform, whether it is by choice or not. I argue that no amount of euphemism-izing will take away the pinch of any slur or pejorative term. No matter how many times we apply a new, less painful term, it is the penalizing -– in whatever form it takes — of differentness and rejection that stings.

Eventually, the new, kind word will take on all the negative meaning of its predecessor — and with disturbing rapidity. These days, it is virtually impossible to find words without putting one’s foot in one’s mouth to describe people who are different, in spite of more than 20 years of political-correctness efforts. The recent political contests are good cases in point.

Let’s quit playing around with mere words. What we really need is a cure for our distrust of difference, our mean-spiritedness towards our fellow man (oops, I mean fellow people), self-examination of our prejudices and fears and more effort to teach one another about each other.

We need to listen and understand more and show less quick dismissal of someone different. “Mainstreaming” has been good, and it has done a lot to teach our children to be more accepting of those without the same abilities as ours. But mainstreaming does not erase intellectual weaknesses or the obvious physical characteristics that make any variety of unusual people easy targets when in public.

I agree, words are important, and the wrong ones can hurt; but this issue requires far more thought and care than just eliminating a word. Once we address the greater issue, the words will take care of themselves.

Anne L. Hess is a retired neuropsychologist, science fiction writer and musician who lives in Greater Bangor.

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