Justice Now

J U S T I C E   N O W:
Mental Retardation Stereotypes

 

Imagine this: You're at school and someone says something really stupid or does something that totally gets on your nerves. You're angry and you call him/her a "retard," "cretin," or "tard." Ever happened to you? And if it has, have you ever thought about what those words really mean?

What is mental retardation, anyway? According to the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), someone is considered mentally retarded if he/she has:

  • An IQ ( intellectual function level) below 70-75 (Average IQ is 100)
     
  • Significant limitations in 2 or more adaptive skill areas. (Those are basic skills people needs to live, play and work within their communities.)
     
  • Had this condition since childhood.

Mental retardation occurs in all kinds of families no matter what their racial, ethnic, economic, or social background is. According to the 1990 census, an estimated 6.2 to 7.5 million people in the U.S. have mental retardation. That's one out of ten American families with a mentally retarded family member, so it's not all that uncommon.

Can you tell if someone is mentally retarded? Not always. People with mental retardation don't always look different from people who are not mentally retarded. But sometimes they do. There's a condition called Down Syndrome (which some people are born with). It's caused by an abnormal chromosome and gives the person a distinct physical look - often there's a broad, flattened head and thick, hooded eyelids. People with Down Syndrome have moderate to severe mental retardation and other health problems.

Why target people with mental retardation? Sometimes people with mental retardation have few social skills and may act in ways that are disruptive, unusual, or out of the social norm. When that happens people stand out from a crowd in negative ways and others around them often react negatively towards them. So sometimes people with mental retardation look different and sometimes act differently than people without mental retardation. Unfortunately, most of us feel uncomfortable with people who are different from us and find it hard to accept them. Part of the problem is that we aren't used to people who are different.

We are all individuals with something positive to offer. A society which once hid people with disabilities behind locked doors is now learning to embrace and accept them.

In recent years we, as a society, have shown our willingness to accept and deal with differences between people in the following two ways:

  • Inclusion, a movement within schools to include children with disabilities in regular schools settings
     
  • Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law protecting the rights of people with physical and mental disabilities

How does mental retardation affect people? It varies a lot. In the same way that people who are not mentally retarded have a wide range of abilities. Some people love math and are amazingly good at it, and some people totally stink in math but are fabulous in foreign language. Only 13% of mentally retarded people have serious limitations in the way they function. The rest are living their lives independently without major problems. For those who do have serious limitations, they can be helped. How? With appropriate childhood education and adult support, they can all lead satisfying lives in the community

So when you lash out at someone and call them "retard" (even if they aren't mentally retarded) you are making fun of people who are. And that's not okay.

It's never okay to put down someone because of the way they look, or talk or dress, their ethnic origin, their sexual orientation, what they believe, or because of a physical or mental condition.

By doing so we strip the person of their personal dignity and rob ourselves of the opportunity to know the person and discover all their unique characteristics.

We are all individuals with something positive to offer. A society which once hid people with disabilities behind closed doors is now learning to embrace and accept them. Inclusion, a movement within schools to include children with disabilities in regular schools settings, and the Americans with Disabilities Act each point to a society more willing to accept and deal with differences between people.

For more information about mental retardation,
 check the American Association on Mental Retardation's web site at
http://www.aamr.org
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