Teaching Children with Special Needs: Labeling: An Unresolved Issue in Special Education

I'm about to reveal my age, which is not a usual thing for a lady, but I do it to illustrate a point. When I was earning my Bachelor's Degree in Education with a specialization in Mental Retardation (you read that right), the powers that be were in the process of re-labeling the various levels of intellectual functioning in children. We were moving from cretin, moron, imbecile and idiot to more palatable terms as described by the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale for Children.  From Wikipedia:  "Intellectual disability (ID), also called intellectual development disorder (IDD) or general learning disability, and formerly known as mental retardation (MR), is a generalized neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by significantly impaired intellectual and adaptive functioning. It is defined by an IQ score below 70 with deficits in two or more adaptive behaviors affecting everyday living." What's in a name, that we have to keep changing it all the time to keep up with the times, or to erase a stigma that grows over time as people use and abuse it? There was and is a certain euphemism treadmill1 that occurs when a scientific term devolves into an insult. It seems to be unavoidable. What hasn't changed are the characteristics of children who present with intellectual disability; there are delays in:

  • oral language development
  • memory skills
  • following social rule
  • acquiring problem-solving skills
  • the development of adaptive behaviors such as self-help or self-care skills
  • the development of social inhibitors

We have changed our approach to educating children in the top layers of disability from separate classrooms to a less restrictive environment as dictated by law. Specifically, Public Law 94-142 specifies the requirement that we work within a complex bureaucracy to identify, and then educate disabled children in a way that keeps them in a regular classroom with their peers as much as possible. The benefits of this arrangement are thousand-fold, it has changed the way society treats the "less abled" into the "differently abled". We all know children who are intellectually challenged but who display remarkable skills in multiple modalities, art, music, mathematics, etc. We keep coming up with new words like "savant" to describe these different abilities.

The more profoundly disabled children are still subject to separate treatment and sometimes institutionalization. The institutions have changed to be much less like human warehouses and more like group homes where we nurture severely disabled children to reach their unique potential.

One of my first internships in my bachelor's program was in the Association for Retarded Children's facility in Buffalo, NY. I remember working in an open room with children with immeasurable intellectual functioning. One boy was a microcephalic child; my assignment was to sit with him, spoon-feed lunch and keep him as clean as possible (which meant learning to predict when he needed a diaper change). The boy was bigger than me, older than I was, and was tied into his chair so he wouldn't fall out. The experience was exhausting and caused me to readjust my major in graduate school to learn more about specific learning disabilities for children who would remain in resource rooms and regular educational environments. Admittedly, I was not qualified or equipped to work in the group home environment with such profoundly afflicted children, and I hold in highest regard those who are.

The labeling treadmill goes on; we now have an autism spectrum disorder to help us determine treatments for children who display multiple characteristics of learning and behavioral difference.

Resources for understanding intellectual difference:

                National Association for Retarded Citizens

                WrightsLaw - Special Education Law and Advocacy

                No Child Left Behind

                PL 94-142


                The Euphemism Treadmill

                Labeling Then and Now - NPR

 1Euphemism Treadmill: Rationalwiki.org. http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Euphemism#Euphemism_treadmill Leave a message below:Neva 

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