Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Semantics of Stigma

I read a blurb not long ago that President Obama signed Rosa's Law, which will replace the terms "mental retardation" in Federal law with "intellectual disability."

We all know the stigma of the "mentally retarded." Unfortunately, society has given those words a very negative, disrespectful, and disempowering connotation. But if we actually look at the words themselves, it paints a somewhat different picture. "Retarded," when it isn't being used as a derogatory slang term, means "slow," or "hinder." Let's look at "intellectual disability." A synonym for "disability" is "incapability," which makes the whole switch-er-oo misleading. If we were to say that a student has an intellectual disability, we are saying that they have an intellectual incapability, while a mental retardation implies intellectual slowness.

Of course, we're all talking in semantics. Words have meaning because of what we assign their meaning to be. That's why "mental retardation" evokes such a bad reponse in common conversation. However, when you use those words, you understand exactly the kind of case being described (for better or for worse). I think that, at it's most basic level, it calls a spade a spade. And honestly, parents have enough trouble understanding their child's handicapping condition and the implications it has for their educational future without being unable to understand their child's difficulties in the first place.

Personally, I have nothing against "mental retardation." Like I said, it makes language very plain for those trying to understand and help a student in need. Moreover, I think that it would be a disservice to students with mental retardation to call them anything else. In order to adequately describe why a student receives special education services and to meet diverse and intensive needs, I think a powerful, understandable term like "mental retardation" is useful.

I understand that it's hard to see the positive in something as negative as the word "retarded." It is a very serious term, but I really think that if it's possible to remove the social connotation and look at the words themselves, it helps us to understand that "mental retardation" has its use in the school system, especially if it helps students to receive the services they need.

.... and this is me stepping off my soapbox! =D


  1. When I was in college I spent summers working with children at Duvall Home for Retarded Children. The name sounds strange now but just because of the connotation not the reality of what the words mean. You make a good point. Other terms like mentally challenged, etc. are hard to interpret.

  2. I also prefer to describe a child in terms of strengths and weaknesses, not inabilities or overarching classifications. Plus, mental retardation is as unique as each child who carries the classification. What would classify one student with the label could be completely different than another.

  3. I love what you say in your comment about "strengths and weaknesses versus inabilities or overarching classifications." Such a powerful point, and I'm right there with you! Having this type of perspective is not only the least occlusive, but it is the perspective that, in my opinion, serves students the best. And we know that makes everyone happy. :D


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