Why we need to nix labels for people with disabilities

Blank TagThere’s a lot of talk these days about doing away with the “R” word (as in “Retarded.”) It’s a worthy endeavor and I support it, but I can’t help but wonder about a few things.

First, terminology describing people with intellectual disabilities (intellectual disabilities being the accepted label in today’s language) has evolved over time. When my uncle Melrose was born in 1921, he was described by a doctor as being feeble-minded.  This is a derogatory term today, but in those days, feeble-minded, moron and idiot were accepted labels. Over time, they gained negative connotations.

The same has been true for “retarded.” It is used as a slanderous description and has fallen out of favor in the disabilities community.  One has only to read the articulate writings of John Franklin Stephens, a man with Down Syndrome, to understand how this label affects people like him.

The short lifespan of labels

Second, I wonder about using labels of any kind — period. It seems that given the evolution of labels, eventually “intellectual disability” will be rejected for some other word choice.

I was recently approached by a couple who told me they had a grandson with a high IQ but who seemed to be incapable of functioning on a social level.

He had graduated from high school and had a job, but had no friends. Fearing he was autistic, they felt he needed a  diagnostic “label” so he could get the treatment they believed he needed.

I can certainly understand their desire for him to lead a full and meaningful life. And I can understand the need to determine if something is “wrong” with their grandson.  If he were my child or grandchild, I would want him to get everything he needed to prosper and find happiness.

All labels should become historical artifacts

I found it difficult to reconcile this need with the call from many experts to do away with all labels for people with disabilities.  J. David Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, writes about this subject in his book Ignored, Shunned, and Invisible: How the Label “Retarded” has Denied Freedom and Dignity to Millions.

Smith says the now taboo term mental retardation is a myth, “a false and unhelpful categorization of people with very diverse needs and characteristics.” Smith says the term mental retardation is “scientifically worthless and socially harmful.”

We need to change our minds

He adds that more important than changing terms is “changing our minds about the needs and potentials of the people with the disabilities to whom the words refer….[M]illions of people have had their lives diminished by the words we have used and the lack of value we have place on their lives.”

In all my readings, I have found it most helpful to look at the subject of disabilities in this way: Each of us is unique and each of us has gifts to offer in this life – regardless of our physical or mental condition. Ultimately, we’re all human beings who deserve acceptance. It’s a lofty ideal, but one worthy of pursuing.