Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

My Photo
Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Words for Retards

In the early 20th Century, people were classified as morons, imbeciles, and idiots as progressively more profound levels of mental retardation. When intelligence testing became standardized (Binet, etc.), these categories became associated with IQ levels below 75, 50, and 25, respectively. The whole group was more generally known as "feeble-minded".

All of these terms soon became derogatory insults in common vernacular, especially among kids, who famously say the darnedest things, including the freely offered observation about the emperor's clothes. And so began the never-ending quest to find socially acceptable replacement terms that would be descriptive rather than judgmental. As we will see, hardly any newly minted terms had a shelf life of more than 5-10 years before they, too, became hopelessly "contaminated" by their association with "dummies".

At one time, it was thot to be a kindness to suggest that "slow learners" (a proposed upgrade from "the feeble-minded") weren't innately less intelligent than their peers; no, they were just as capable of learning, but they had somehow been artificially "held back" or "retarded" from exercising their natural hunger for knowledge. Hard as it is nowadays to think of it that way, "retarded" was meant as a term of kindness, implying that the problem lay outside the individual, who was thus blameless.

The old categories got shiny new names. Morons became educable mentally retarded (capable of some intellectual learning, such as limited reading and writing skills); imbeciles became trainable mentally retarded (able to tie shoelaces, wash dishes, and perform other simple physical tasks); and idiots became profoundly mentally retarded (slightly more trouble than house pets).

Just as the overarching adjective "feeble-minded" gave way to "retarded", so did the corresponding vernacular nouns: "feebs" became "retards" or "tardos".

Education professionals, being only human, weren't up for using 3 multi-syllabic words every time they needed to characterize a child, so they quickly hit on the abbreviations EMR, TMR, and PMR, which as always were intended to be merely descriptive. It took only a few years of usage among the teachers before the 1st 2 of these became pejorative among the students. PMR was apparently never used insultingly, because those individuals were almost always institutionalized, so the term never got bandied about much outside of the asylums and mental hospitals where they were warehoused.

So the quest for politically acceptable euphemisms began anew. "Mentally", "cognitively", and "developmentally" were adverbs slapped in front of "challenged", "disabled", and "handicapped" by various people at various times in various different parts of the country. ("Developmentally disabled" is actually a broader term that may also include physical handicaps.) Each of them had its vogue, its advocates, and its quickly degraded abbreviation. ("Go away, Billy, you CD!" did not refer to either certificates of deposit or compact disks.)

Desperate to avoid stigmatizing, educators tried shifting the perspective. They tried institutionalizing the condition. Instead of labeling the kids, the reasoning went, why not simply describe the educational programs we put them into? And let's describe it with a word that indicates how wonderful those programs are; let's call them special education. Thus we got the Church Lady's catchphrase "Well, isn't that special!" and the character on Crank Yankers known as Special Ed. Needless to say, these comedic uses of the phrase were only effective because "special ed" had already been snickered over by half a generation by that time. So even compliments didn't work.

Next up: How about externalizing the problem? It wasn't the kid who was a dummy, it was his environment that made him that way. Presto: "learning disability". And some kids had worse environments than others, so they had "special learning disabilities". For some odd reason, out in the schoolyard "SLD" just meant "really stupid". To kids, "special" was never gonna be as good as "ordinary".

The latest trend has been to medicalize the terminology, apparently on the theory that kids have never made fun of their peers who are blind or stutter or walk with crutches. It's been observed that "just because your doctor has a name for your condition doesn't mean he or she knows what it is." So if we say that Jimmy is autistic or Janey has Asperger's syndrome, surely that'll elicit sympathy instead of derision, right? Oh, yeah, that's exactly how it worked, yah, you betcha.

The fact of the matter is that children are unsocialized little hedonists who are never more than a couple of weeks away from reenacting The Lord of the Flies. There will never be a word so good, noble, and pure that they won't quickly turn it into a term of mockery if it's associated with a class of people that they're inclined to mock. If we habitually referred to mentally disabled kids as "God's little children" (which is what my own mother called them), the stigma would probably eventually work its way up to God as well.

It's a losing battle and always will be. And it's gotten to be a pain in the ass to try to come up with a fresh approach every half-dozen years or so, to say nothing of wreaking havoc on long-term record-keeping. My recommendation is to just pick a set of labels (letters of the alphabet, or category numbers like hurricanes, or anything, really) and stick with them. Yes, we can predict with utter confidence that they too will become insults, but let's face reality. There are going to be insults no matter what we do. All we're accomplishing by switching terms every few years is adding to the collection of available put-downs. Let's accept defeat as gracefully as possible and move on (or, as Sen. George Aiken recommended with respect to Vietnam, declare victory and leave).


Post a Comment

<< Home