Opinion: By Jay Mathews
Dear Extra Credit:
In your March 22 response to my letter about the Montgomery County learning centers issue ["For Reporters, a Remedial Course in Learning Centers," Montgomery Extra], you said that my references to students or children with mental retardation were "old-fashioned, and, to some, offensive" and that I might want to trade in the term "mentally retarded" for "one of the terms now used by professionals in that field, such as learning disabled or developmentally disabled."
I'm using the term "mental retardation" because:
· That is the term that the Montgomery County public school system uses to describe students placed in the Learning for Independence and School-Community Based centers -- either students with mild to moderate mental retardation or students with moderate to severe mental retardation.
· Learning disabilities are not the same as mental retardation. By definition, someone with a learning disability has intelligence in the average or above-average range (above 70). Someone with mental retardation has intelligence in the below-average range. I don't think you want to imply that these two diagnoses are the same, unless you want parents of kids with learning disabilities jumping all over you.
· Developmental disabilities sometimes, but not always, include cognitive disabilities. For instance, a child with cerebral palsy has a developmental disability, but he may or may not have mental retardation. Tourette's syndrome is also a developmental disability, but people with that syndrome almost never have mental retardation. So, developmental disability is not synonymous with mental retardation. A developmental disability is simply a disorder that begins before 3, affects development and is expected to last for life.
I have a 13-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, and I am not happy with the term mental retardation. (My daughter is not happy with it either! I can't tell you how sad it made me the first time she came home from school and said: "Mom, what does retarded mean? Am I retarded?")
I am with the people who are pushing to have the term renamed something such as "cognitive disability" or "intellectual disability." Until that change is official, the only term you can use to be clear about the students you're referring to is "mental retardation."
Dear Extra Credit:
· Mental retardation is the term used in federal and state special education law.
· It is possible to have both mental retardation and a learning disability. The terms are not equivalent. If you have an individual with mental retardation with a specific, measured intellectual level, who cannot read or do math at that expected intellectual level, he/she may be diagnosed with a specific learning disability.
· "Developmental disability" is a broader term, encompassing conditions such as autism (which may or may not be co-morbid with mental retardation). Federal and state special education laws do use the term developmental delay, but I think it can only apply to children ages 3 through 9.
· In the field, some professionals instead use the term cognitive disability. So you get reports referring to individuals with a mild cognitive disability, a moderate cognitive disability or severe/profound cognitive disability.
I don't find the term "children with mental retardation" offensive. The "R" word (retard), however, is every bit as offensive to me as the "N" word, and it saddens me that school officials do not treat disability harassment with the same seriousness that they do racial harassment.
Thank you for your corrections and your nuanced explanations of the array of terminology. I have often confessed how little I know about special education, and how infrequently I write about it, mostly because it is so complicated and so difficult, at least for me, to turn into stories that readers will find interesting and comprehensible.
The nomenclature is changing. You seem to want to push it in the same direction I do. That awful use of the word "retard" is likely to bring an end soon to the term "mental retardation" in programs. The President's Committee on Mental Retardation has changed its name to the President's Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, and the former Association for Retarded Citizens now calls itself the Arc.
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Thursday, March 29, 2007
Opinion: By Jay Mathews
Posted by david at 6:02 AM Permalink