Magazine article National Association of School Psychologists. Communique

Off Task

Magazine article National Association of School Psychologists. Communique

Off Task

Article excerpt

Sticks and Stones: Intellectual Disability

I am of two minds about politically correct speech and labeling. Mind One: I notice that the words in the hymnal at my church have been changed from terms like "men" and "sons" to more genderneutral language, and it can bring tears to my eyes that someone cared enough to consider how exclusive those words can be. Mind Two: As a linguist (oh yes, I had a second major), I know that the masculine terms are meant to encompass humankind as a whole ... and the poetry reader in me thinks the sound of the words is sometimes awkward (what rhymes with "his/her?"). Mind Two: While we might complain that it seems like unimportant nitpicking ... Mind One: Anytime we can change our words to be more inclusive and less hurtful, that's a good thing, right?

I had just finished classroom lessons with all nine of the eighth grade English classes in my junior high. They had read Flowers for Algernon, and I took advantage of the opportunity to talk to them about IQ, since it figures so prominently in the story, and what IQ means and doesn't mean. I had included a discussion of the term mentally retarded and pointed out that those words were not originally pejorative; that "retarded" just means slowed down. ("Like fire-retardant?" asked a student. "Like ritardando in music?" asked another.) The term mentally retarded was actually coined in order to be more sensitive.

What makes the words hurtful is how they're used. Every time somebody sneers, "Hey retard!" or asks, "What are you, retarded?" there is, so to speak, another brick in the wall. We can keep changing the words, but if the meanspirited keep casting them as epithets, our efforts will be in vain.

I told the eighth graders that the original, clinical medical terms for degrees of mental retardation were idiot, imbecile, and moron. They were as shocked as I expected: "Why would any doctor say such hurtful things to a person with mental retardation?" They weren't originally insults! But as soon as they were used that way, the words went down the slippery slope of ugliness until now only the most completely out-of-it would imagine using them as anything descriptive. Although I do recall, back when my daughter Alice was born, researching the literature on Down syndrome (That was using ERIC, anybody remember that? Before Google?) and getting back a treatise on "Mongoloid Idiocy." Wow, isn't that just what a new mother wants to hear?

I'm moved to make a linguistic prediction. …

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