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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Mental Retardation -- Political Correctness

State and local agencies in Ohio that work with those suffering from "mentally retardation" seem to be worried about the impact that language might have on perceptions of their clients and those who haven't changed the name to some permutation of "developmental disability" will soon vote on doing so. The older term reflects a time when clearly identifying persons was the only consideration in coming up with language. But now we must consider what I have called the "significance" of a term, as well as its literal meaning in my blog on "The Meaning of Meaning."

One difficulty of the adjective "mentally retarded" and the noun form "mental retardation" is that they implicate some force acting on them that is holding them back. Some clear cases of terms that have this meaning and significance would be "we retarded the growth of invasive plants by ..." or "we retarded the destructive effects of acid rain on stone statues by ..." In the case of mental retardation there is no force acting on those afflicted with this problem that holds them back. They appear to have some condition that is genetic or caused by poor nutrition or an injury or whatever might cause mental disabilities. The term "mental disability" is therefore more accurate than "mental retardation." That is reason enough to change the term.

Notice that if one takes the term "mental retardation" seriously one would do research on the problem by looking at causes of retardation and make efforts to lessen the forces that are doing the retarding. So, there could be a cure for this by lessening or stopping the effects of these forces. In the case of "mental disability" the focus of research would be on efforts to assist those afflicted to learn. Moreover, this more accurate term suggests that one should also focus on research on types of disabilities and this could lead to differential means of dealing with their disabilities.

I have no expertise in this field so please take my comments to apply just to what the language suggests.

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14 Comments:

Blogger Kelly said...

I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of the term "mentally retarded," but first I will point out problems I see with the other two terms proposed.

The term "mental disability" has a problem of specificity. The term also encompasses mental disabilities which have no effect (or a qualitatively different effect) on intelligence or communication, such as depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The term "developmental disability" has a problem of being overly-narrow, because it implies a childhood-onset. Some people can become "mentally retarded" (or whatever term becomes the norm) from events occurring later in life, such as head trauma or oxygen deprivation.

If taken literally, "developmental disability" also has a problem of specificity, because it's not necessarily regarding mental faculties.

"Mental retardation" is the best term to describe what we intend the terms to mean. I have also looked up the term "retard," and it is also an intransitive verb as well as a transitive verb, and in this sense the intransitive form of the word makes perfect sense.

The problem most people are concerned with is the hijacking of the phrase to mean something derogatory. But any accurate term which is adopted will eventually be used in this way, I am sure.

So, if it were up to me, I would stick with the term "mental retardation."

12:40 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

12:56 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

I think I already made my point about the term "mental disability," but I found this of interest. Regarding the DSM-IV (the manual used by psychology professionals to diagnose mental disorders) provides the following 5 "axes":

Axis I: clinical disorders, including major mental disorders, as well as developmental and learning disorders
Axis II: underlying pervasive or personality conditions, as well as mental retardation
Axis III: Acute medical conditions and physical disorders.
Axis IV: psychosocial and environmental factors contributing to the disorder
Axis V: Global Assessment of Functioning or Children’s Global Assessment Scale for children under the age of 18. (on a scale from 100 to 0)

(language taken from Wikipedia)

So, it appears psychology professionals make a further distinction between developmental/learning disorders (such as ADHD)and mental retardation. This makes sense to me. But in any case, the point is the term "mental disability" could encompass both Axis I and Axis II disorders. And "developmental disability" is a thing which these same professionals take to be qualitatively different from mental retardation.

12:58 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

Another thought occurred to me to raise doubt on my previous assessment of the term "mentally retarded." Simply because it can be intransitive does not imply there is no force acting to cause the retardation. "Impede" implies there is an impediment. So, perhaps "mentally retarded" is still a problematic term, though in my assessment still preferable to the other options given thus far.

A more accurate term would be "mentally deficient." This seems to me both more accurate AND more negative than "retarded," because it does suggest the problem is from within (which is accurate).

As a final thought before completely taking over this discussion, I find the term "intellectually impaired" to be quite accurate and inoffensive.

1:44 PM

 
Blogger concerned citizen said...

This subject is a sticky wicket & I've definitely hesitated before when describing the mentally retarded guy down the street. (Who I have no problem with, but he is after all, not all there.) The definition I choose to pull out of the hat has more to do with the person I am talking to then the subject at hand.

For instance, "Intellectually impaired" is pretty good. But I have to say, Kelly, it sounds like lawyer talk.
I would use that term at for example...a City council meeting.

7:25 PM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

You're probably right, it does sound like lawyer talk, but I think most PC terms do sound like that.

I'm going to waffle back over and say I think "mentally retarded" is the best option, if only for the reason it has been the technical term for such a long time it has taken on the precise meaning we intend. And, it's certainly better than the prior terms, "idiot", "imbecile", and "moron".

9:20 AM

 
Blogger Kelly said...

By the way, I was checking out the Wikipedia article on mental retardation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mentally_retarded) and I find it quite enlightening. Mental retardation is part of a broader spectrum of disabilities known as developmental disabilities, and it does exclude post-development problems like brain trauma. "The phrase intellectual disability is increasingly being used as a synonym for people with significantly below-average cognitive ability."

9:22 AM

 
Blogger handmaiden said...

I admit I am uncomfortable with the term "mentally retarded" because it is not PC & it can be hurtful to some people.

Besides, "he HAS a mental disability" is more preferable then "he IS mentally retarded." in any context.

10:20 AM

 
Blogger Chimera said...

I'm mostly in agreement with Kelly, here. The term "mentally retarded" is accurate. "Mentally" refers to the process of thought, logic, and intellect. "Retarded" means slowed, obstructed, barriered.

I am reminded of something I once heard in my childhood, in reference to one of the neighborhood kids..."He ain't retarded. He's just slow." As if there were something criminally wrong in being retarded, but heroic in being slow, without any thought at all that the two terms mean exactly the same thing within the context!

A lot of PC garbage is simply a matter of people who are deliberately offended by someone's calling a spade a spade. The first step to making people stop using such specific language is to pretend that such language is insulting, rather than definitive.

Or, to put it another way, in order to camoflage a social abnormality, obscure it behind the diffusion of obfuscatory language. Make it nearly impossible to differentiate it from "normal" -- whatever that is!

1:24 PM

 
Blogger SusieQ said...

I dislike labels, because they box people in.

Recently I heard a hispanic speaking woman tell about the pain she endured due to being labeled mentally retarded when she was a child. It happened that she was given a test as a child to determine her mental capacity. Perhaps she had just moved to the U.S. I can't recall. Anyway, the test was in English, but she knew little English. Consequently her test results suggested she was mentally retarded. She carried that label throughout her school years. But that wasn't all.

Since she had been labeled mentally retarded, it was assumed that her children were also mentally retarded. They carried the label too then.

Well, she decided one day when she was in her late twenties to get educated. She went on to college and ended up getting a doctorate when it was all said and done.

Now she goes around and gives talks about her experience as a "mentally retarded" person. She tells her audience that she has three (it might have been four, can't recall) mentally retarded children. Two are lawyers and one is a doctor, she tells her audience. It went something like that.

Of course, the point she makes is that labels like "mentally retarded" may not be accurate and can actually retard the development of a person. I wish I knew her name.

11:24 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

chimera, you completely missed the point. You say [blockquote]. "Retarded" means slowed, obstructed, barriered.[/blockquote]. These verbs all presuppose some agent that slowed, obstructed, or barriered (is that a word) the person and there is no such thing. Ergo, your claim that it is the most accurate is clearly false.

7:36 AM

 
Blogger Chimera said...

"These verbs all presuppose some agent that slowed, obstructed, or barriered..."

[I was using the terms as adjectives, but, oh, well...]

And that agent would be the person's own innate capabilities, either natural or imposed.

The term, "retarded" is not inherently perjorative. But in a world where the PC Police are busy trying to homogenize the language so as not to allow anyone to differentiate from anyone else -- and thus eliminate what they perceive to be "classness" -- we treat it as such. And in doing so, we are killing our abilities to communicate effectively.

Susieq, the label was wrong primarily because the process was wrong. Had she been given that same test in her own language, I have no doubt the results would have been different.

12:58 PM

 
Blogger Lisa said...

"I dislike labels, because they box people in"

Something that is true of you will box you in if you let it, regardless of whether people use this word or that word or no word for it. I think a lot of the PC fear is propagated by those who feel compelled to be offended on behalf of others who are not, in fact, offended. I've talked to Cherokee friends who have no problem with sports teams call "Warriors" or "Braves" or "Indians." I've talked to Jewish friends who have no problem when someone wishes them a Merry Christmas. Yet the PC crowd busies itself managing your language and mine on behalf of these and other people who aren't even offended. Makes me wonder what their underlying compulsion really is. to seem more educated and morally superior to others? It's a little sad.

10:25 PM

 
Blogger The Language Guy said...

The PC crowd consists of busybodies who are quite sure that they have insights denied to the rest of us. Ditto PETA which is quite sure they know what is best for animals (and in some cases they are surely right) but to oppose hunters is ridiculous.

6:09 AM

 

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