‘Oh, you retard! What did you do that for?’
‘You’re such a retard’
‘How did you manage that, retard’
As a sixteen-year-old, these are phrases I hear so often, not directed at me, but I hear it being said as a joke between friends, or as simple ‘banter’. I hate to be ‘that person’ – you know the one that complains even though its ‘an inside joke’ or ‘friendly banter’ – but I feel that the word ‘retard’ should stop being used and passed around in the way it is. People say it without knowing what it means: without knowing what the word truly entails; the complications that come with the mental issue; and the way in which life is different for someone who is actually ‘retarded’. What makes it worse is that some people use the word knowing what it means – it has just become so normal in our society, when it shouldn’t be! If you think that it isn’t a big deal, it’s just banter after all – think about the people who have intellectual disabilities. It’s gotten so bad that if you google the definition of retard, the oxford dictionary defines, as well as the verb (delay or hold back in terms of progress or development), the noun form of the word is defined as ‘a person who has a mental disability (often used as a general term of abuse)’₁. Imagine having an intellectual disability like autism and therefore not doing well in class with an IQ of below 70 to 75 (whilst the average is 100) making you classify as a ‘retard’ and then people around you saying it like it’s a joke, and it doesn’t affect you, or saying it to other people as a ‘form of abuse’ when they have no clue what it’s like to actually be in your shoes.
Today, mental retardation is known as intellectual disability. The term ‘retard’ has been tainted over the years and this is normal. According to ‘Questia’₂, it began simply being an account of IQ, however as time went along, this was largely abandoned – it is based on the support one needs in different areas in their life such as educational needs, housing, or daily necessities like feeding and bathing. A common misconception is that the disability means they are unable to learn, however, the actual case is that it takes longer for one with the disability to grasp things. Healthline tells us that there are four levels of intellectual disorder: mild, moderate, severe and profound₃. Severe cases are diagnosed at birth but almost all cases are diagnosed before the child turns 18. It is thought that intellectual disability affects only 1% of the population₅.
Intellectual disability roots from before birth, during birth or in early childhood (as stated by the NHS) ₄. Brain development can be affected before birth for a variety of reasons: the child could be a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome if the mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy, they may develop certain genes (e.g. down syndrome), or even malnutrition₂. Brain development can be affected during childbirth for a variety of reasons: it may be that the baby is premature, underweight₂ or complications occurred during birth that stop enough oxygen from getting to the brain (the umbilical cord might wrap around the baby’s neck) ₄. Brain development can be affected during childhood for a variety of reasons: illnesses like meningitis (which Muskaan has written about previously on our blog), encephalitis, or injury during early childhood₂. The most common causes are fetal alcohol syndrome, fragile X syndrome and Down syndrome. Sometimes, the cause remains unknown₂.
In order for a doctor to measure a child’s adaptive behaviors (day to day life skills), they will observe the child’s skills and compare them to other children of the same age₅. Signs to look out for would include₃:
- Inability to reach intellectual standards
- Taking more time than other children to learn to talk or walk
- Inability to understand consequences, right and wrong
- Behavior inconsistent to the child’s age
- Lack of curiosity
- Learning difficulties
- Difficulty to communicate, take care of themselves or interact with others.
In children with profound and multiple learning disability (PMLD), the child has more than one disability (the most significant being an intellectual disability). These can include seizures, mood disorders (anxiety, autism, etc.), and even problems with sight and hearing₅. Children or adults with PMLD need a carer or carers to help them with everyday life.
Diagnosing the child involves a three-part evaluation₃:
- Interview with the parents
- Observations of the child
- Standard tests (e.g. blood tests, urine tests, imaging tests, EEG) ₅ – they may also go through an intelligence test
This may include visits to a psychologist, speech pathologist, social worker, pediatric neurologist etc.
Some doctors believe that the best way to prevent intellectual disorders are vaccinations. Ensuring a child does not undergo rubella, measles, meningitis etc. can help prevent intellectual disorder. For example, vaccination against Haemophilus influenzae b (Hib), a cause of childhood meningitis, is expected to prevent 6000 cases of mental retardation according to ‘Questia’₂.
In terms of treatment, support is key. NHS offers annual health checks in which a general physical examination takes place and as well as this, a checkup for epilepsy, checks on prescribed medicines, and a review on any other arrangements with physiotherapists or speech therapists (to see more see website 6 in the bibliography) ₆. Treatment cannot just get rid of the disability, but it helps them reach their full potential. Although some may think this is barely treatment, it is the only thing that can be done (other than genetic modification which is a whole new topic in itself). When the child is ready to attend school, it is wise to put in place an Individualised Education Program₃. Schools provide this for free. Some choose to bring their children to special schools, however others choose to do the practice of ‘mainstreaming’ in which the child can attend classes in a standard classroom to help them feel more included and also help the people around them understand their special needs and capabilities₂.
People with intellectual disabilities may be going through a lot – be it the struggles of autism, seizures or simply the struggles of school – yet we still use the word ‘retard’ as a ‘term of abuse’. I believe it is wrong. To think that someone who has an intellectual disability is able to cope with the struggle of learning to get through their everyday life, yet someone like me can complain about school and everything being too hard. To think that someone who has an intellectual disability not only has to go through the struggles of their disability, but also the struggles of being bullied to the point that the ex-medical-term ‘mental retardness’ has simply just become a term of abuse. To think there are people out there who have no idea what it means to call someone a ‘retard’. I believe that is wrong.
By Antonia Jayme