Thursday, February 19, 2015

The R-Word vs Intellectual Disability

I'm typically not one to get offended easily over politically correct terms, yet after teaching students with intellectual disabilities the R-word (retard) now hits me like a punch in the stomach every time I hear it. Recently I was going through a student's file to write a case history. As a young child he was found eligible for special education under the category of mental retardation, because it wasn't that long ago (five, six years ago?) in my district that we used the label. The words just sat there coldly on the page-Mental Retardation. Do I write that in my report, I wondered, and then note the change of the term, or do I just act like the MR term was never there to begin with. Can I actually bring my fingers to type the words? So much has changed since a committee of educators gave that little boy the legal label of Mental Retardation. The student is now eligible under Intellectual Disability (ID), which is a much more respectful term, but means the same thing.

Joanne Jacob's touched on the R-word debate in her recent post. It's one that I almost forget is going on because it feels we have come so far from using the word. It wasn't that long ago it was still the legal label we'd use in the school system, and now I couldn't even bring myself to write the words in my report even though I would have simply been recording the facts.

In the rush away from using the R word we left out an important group of people- the parents of students newly found eligible for the term. When my school first opened we received a group of students who had just recently been found eligible for special education under the category of Intellectual Disability. In the education field we knew this was the same as being found eligible for Mental Retardation, but the parents did not. We had many uncomfortable conversations with parents explaining to them that the year before they signed papers agreeing that their child had an Intellectual Disability and required a specialized program. We could show them their signature, the psychological report with the IQ scores, the large amounts of documentation the school had put together, and the legal definition of Intellectual Disability (ID) on the paper they signed, but the parents were still shocked. They hadn't fully understood what an Intellectual Disability was when they signed off on it. They thought it was another term for Learning Disability. This did not just happen once. It happened time and time again. The nicer, more respectful term meant that the parents hadn't fully understood what was going on in the meetings.

 It's hard for parents to hear that their child is so far behind their peers, that the child's IQ is significantly below average, and that their child requires specialty designed instruction outside of a typical classroom in order to maintain and apply knowledge he has been taught. When we tell a parent that their child has an Intellectual Disability we are telling them that their child will most likely not get a standard high school diploma. That they need to start saving and planning for the future right now, even when their child is five, because their child may not be able to be financially independent. Using the term Intellectual Disability has made this conversation easier in the moment, but only because it momentarily softens the blow. Parents are more likely to accept the ID label, but only because they do not fully understand it. The new term does not change the reality of the situation. It does not change their child's current ability or needs.

When we are sitting down with parents at eligibility meetings we have to honest about what the term Intellectual Disability means. We cannot hide behind political correctness and hope that the family will slowly discover the reality on their own. If the parents do not understand what ID means then we are not having an open and honest conversation with them. We are doing them and their child a disservice, and we are asking parents to agree to legally binding documents they do not understand themselves because we used a fancy term instead of one they understood.

The R word should go- I'm not arguing that. But we have to do our jobs to make sure parents understand that we have simply renamed it.


Emily said...

We have run into this misunderstanding with teachers at my school as well. Folks constantly confuse it with LD, and it's so difficult to help them understand without using the 'r-word' (which is NOT a word I want to use).

Anonymous said...

"Mental retardation," in my experience, was not used disrespectfully. It's just that it's too close to "retard," which was and still is. But there was actually something to like about "mental retardation," which is that it was a more accurate description of the child's condition than another term in use a few years back: developmental delay. That one implied to parents that the child was experiencing delay, but that the child would catch up. Retardation, on the other hand, realistically depicts the issue as a general "slowing down" of the child's learning processes, which is pretty accurate for children with ID, most of the time.

Carol Jennings said...

Intellectual disability is a term used when a person has certain limitations in cognitive functioning and skills, including communication, social and self-care skills. These limitations can cause a child to develop and learn more slowly or differently than a typically developing child. Intellectual disability can happen any time before a child turns 18 years old, even before birth.Intellectual disability is the most common developmental disability.Intellectual disability – formerly known as mental retardation -- can be caused by injury, disease, or a problem in the brain. For many children, the cause of their intellectual disability is unknown. Teachers who have done childcare courses know how to handle those kids. They are just soft hearten. Love them and they will love you more back.