Mental Retardation Is Not Synonymous With Stupid

This topic is one close to my heart. My daughter, Pearl, has Down Syndrome, one of the leading causes of clinical mental retardation. Every individual who is considered to have mental retardation has their own learning potential, which we should strive to help them reach. They all, including Pearl, should not be dismissed as stupid.

Mental Retardation was Historically Used to Attach Labels

Years ago, people with mental retardation were put into three categories; educable, trainable and severe-profound.

  • Educable meant being able to learn things like reading and math.
  • Trainable indicated the ability to put on their own clothes and feed themselves.
  • Severe-profound described those who required assistance for nearly all their daily needs.

During this time, people with Down Syndrome were sent away to spend their lives in state mental institutions. Society stereotyped these people as being happy and lovable and stupid, with no real potential to live “normal ” lives.

Thank goodness my daughter wasn’t born in those times. She would have been excluded from the very existence which now helps her thrive; living at home and attending her neighborhood school.

We Need To Keep Working to Eliminate Prejudices

Although society has progressed from those dark ages, there are still many prejudices associated with mental retardation. The mere name mental retardation has a negative connotation. The terms “retard” and “MR” are still used today, by some youth and adults alike. These words make me cringe and my skin crawl. They are ugly and hurtful.

There are many disabilities that include mental retardation as part of their etiology. These include Fragile X Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Down Syndrome, Prader-Willi, and Hydrocephalus to name a few. Many children have no specific diagnosis but mental retardation and parents and professionals do not know the cause.

Slow at Learning But Not Stupid

I used to believe that mental retardation was synonymous with stupid. I know now, this is not true. My daughter, Pearl, is not stupid.

She is slow and it takes for her longer to learn some things. But she does learn. She can read and spell and write her own name. We have to use different methods sometimes to get a point across. But Pearl can learn and does, when we teach in ways she learns best.

Pearl’s learning is not a process where she absorbs things “naturally” like her big brother. Learning requires a concerted effort, and repetition and a variety of modes.

Many people who experience mental retardation have speech and articulation difficulties. Our society interprets poor speech as stupidity and perpetuates the myth of retardation.

We used to receive many calls from parents of young children who transitioned from infant learning or preschool and a classification of developmentally delayed, to elementary school and a classification of mental retardation. Parents often have a difficult time accepting this category to label their child.

Let’s Focus on Strengths and Potential

As with all disabilities, once we begin to look at strengths, instead of weaknesses, what people CAN do not what they CAN’T, when we offer choice and seek potential, amazing things happen.

Sweet, nine- year-old Pearl is a perfect example of what can happen when we discard stereotypes and look at each person as an individual. Pearl has benefited from 6 years of education with her peers, excellent speech therapy, dynamite IEP teams, and a can-do attitude.

Pearl has had the benefit of a family that loves her and believes in her potential; parents that sought training on special education law, and an older brother that celebrates her every success. Pearl has experienced wonderful teachers who gave her a chance, adapted lessons and tasks, and looked for new ways to teach regular subjects.

Friends and Rich Experiences

Probably best of all, Pearl has friends. Friends who call her on the phone and ask her to come over to play. Friends who invite her to birthday parties.

Pearl plays T-ball in a regular little league program. She can get a hit and run the bases. She even knows how to get someone out and jumped for joy after her first tag out this summer while playing third base. Sometimes Pearl would step up to bat and not quite get to first before the opposing team got her out. Sometimes she cried. But that’s part of the game; a part of growing up. I’m so glad she had the opportunity. I’m so glad she wasn’t born years ago, locked away by a society that felt they had they right to pre-determine potential.

Times are changing. Families, don’t give up! You can make a difference for your child who is mentally retarded. I am grateful to the parents before me who followed their hearts and not the dictates of a society that didn’t know. Pearl says it best . . . “I do it my own.”

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