Newsletter – June, 2001

**Companion Resources Newsletter**

edited by Paul D. Leichty

Volume 3, No. 6 June 2001

God…brought them to the man…and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19)

The ability to name something or someone is an awesome power. Like all power, it can be used for good or for bad. This month, we consider the names or labels that have been used in the United States to talk about persons with developmental disabilities.

During this past month, I secured a fascinating book by James W. Trent entitled Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States . The book chronicles the history of how we in the United States came to think of persons who differ from the norm in their mental functioning. On one level, it is the story of how “caring” professionals took power over persons through the use of labels. By putting a name to their condition and proposing a “solution” to that named condition, many people were exiled from society, tucked away in ever-growing institutions.

Most of us cringe these days when we hear words like “half-wits,” “dunces,” or “dullards.” These words seem to have immediate negative connotations which are demeaning. But Trent purposely uses other words, the words invented by professionals from the 1840’s onward that they used to characterize persons with developmental and intellectual disabilities. It is interesting to note that these words have become just as jarring to our ears, if not moreso.

In 1910, a classification system was adopted that attempted to standardize terminology to categorize “feeble-minded” persons. “Idiots” were those with a mental age of less than two years. Next were “imbeciles” with a mental age of 3-7. Finally, “morons” could function at roughly 8-12 years of age. These were the words used by the professionals and the intellectuals of the day. These categories existed for decades.

What is interesting is how we think of these words today. As I look back, the only way I remember these words being used was as an insult, albeit sometimes disguised as comedy. The slapstick comedy of the Three Stooges come to mind. I’m sure that as a youngster, I also heard my fellow students and playmates hurl these words at each other.

When these words were invented, they were not derogatory words; they were meant to be descriptive. However, once people receive a label and people associate enough negative connotations to that label, it becomes demeaning and violent.

In my growing up years, we were taught to use the word “retarded.” It simply describes the slowness to learn. This term became demeaning almost as soon as I learned it. Kids would call each other “retarded” or “retardo” as a put-down. Eventually, the term has fallen more and more into disuse. It has simply become another name, a label which subtly reminds the listener that the speaker has a certain power over the person being labeled.

Names and labels are invented as people struggle to come to terms with the differences in others. Greater understanding can sometimes lead to better caring. But the history of persons with developmental disabilities in America proves that inevitably, caring becomes controlling in the naming process. Eventually, the “greater good” of society leads to a devaluing of persons who are different. Instead of being allowed to live to the fullest extent possible, persons with labels are shunted off into exile where their differences won’t need to be noticed. It is interesting that words like “inmate” and “parole” which today we associate with the prison system, were once used in connection with “asylums” and large state “schools” for persons with disabilities.

When we label people, we put them in a box. Labeling may help us to understand, but when the label takes over and describes the whole of that person, then it becomes limiting and demeaning. Even people with the same condition (like “autism” or “ADHD”) are far more complex than a label can ever describe.

Trent points out that even the seemingly innocuous term “special education” for persons with disabilities has been brutalized. School students make cruel jokes and taunts at “speds” in the same way as they did about “idiots” and “morons” before.

Today, many are experimenting with new terminology. The language of “challenges” has been adopted in many circles. But will this do anything more than lead to a new round of cruel jokes? What is the answer to this labeling dilemma?

In the Biblical story of the garden of Eden, the first human being (“Adam”) was allowed to name the plants and animals. Humanity is charged with a certain power of oversight of the rest of creation, and this included the power to name or label. But as scripture goes on to say, “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.'” When it comes time to name the partner, it is said, “she shall be called” Eve, a subtle shift away from labeling.

Many persons who are sensitive to this issue have tried to use “person first” language when talking about the abilities and disabilities of someone. I think this is generally a helpful step. I think we can also be specific whenever possible. Instead of talking about “a retarded child” we can refer to “a child with Downs Syndrome.”

However, I believe that we can also make the effort to talk about people in a more well-rounded way. Instead of focusing on the disabilities of a person, we can use descriptive language that also includes a person’s abilities and strengths. We can avoid language that always talks about people in certain stereotypical ways.

Perhaps we will always live with folks who use language to belittle and demean others. At points, we will need to politely confront the attitudes that are destructive of community. Those of us who have the power of language over others will have to be continually watchful that our own language is a language of partnership as befits other human beings rather than a language of oversight as befits our relationship to the rest of creation.

What are your thoughts on this subject? What have you found helpful or hurtful? Write to me at And pass this newsletter along to a friend with the encouragement to subscribe.

Blessings to all!

Paul D. Leichty

The Goldenrod Community

Middlebury, Indiana

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“People using Technology building Community”


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