I was just watching a CBS Morning News story about a couple that gave birth to a Down Syndrome child. The reporter was thrilled to tell us the couple’s next baby was “completely normal.” That kind of crass inconsideration in the media is the sort of cruel framing of a person by label that then seeps into all of society and permeates a popular cultural mindset against those who are thought to be outside the range of “Normal.”
Has “Average” become the new “Normal” — where the middling height, midline intelligence and the ordinary outlook are christened as “acceptable and necessary” in order to fit in to “Normal” society?
Labeling people in order keep them out of some vague and undefined idea of Normal is a dangerous and hurtful game that ostracizes those among us who most need our considered care and who deserve our unconditional love and acceptance.
There are still those who label the “mentally challenged” as “retarded” or “retards” without realizing they are insulting the person and damaging undeveloped psyches. Some may argue words are not weapons of context and labels do not convey meaning in a vain effort to protest against the political correctness of the euphemism treadmill but they are mistaking their hubris for a false humanity. Here is a quick history of labeling the mentally challenged:
In common usage they are simple forms of abuse. Their now-obsolete use as psychiatric technical definitions is of purely historical interest. There have been some efforts made among mental health professionals to discourage use of these terms, but as long as intelligence is seen to contribute to social and financial success, children will use any term they believe to mean “stupid” as an insult. In addition to the terms below, the abbreviation retard or tard is still used as a generic insult, especially among children and teens.
* Cretin is the oldest and probably comes from an old French word for Christian. The implication was that people with significant intellectual or developmental disabilities were “still human” (or “still Christian”) and deserved to be treated with basic human dignity. This term has not been used in any serious or scientific endeavor since the middle of the 20th century and is now always considered a term of abuse.
* Idiot indicated the greatest degree of intellectual disability, where the mental age is two years or less, and the person cannot guard himself or herself against common physical dangers. The term was gradually replaced by the term profound mental retardation.
* Imbecile indicated an intellectual disability less extreme than idiocy and not necessarily inherited. It is now usually subdivided into two categories, known as severe mental retardation and moderate mental retardation.
* Moron was defined by the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded in 1910, following work by Henry H. Goddard, as the term for an adult with a mental age between eight and twelve; mild mental retardation is now the term for this condition. Alternative definitions of these terms based on IQ were also used.
I am not arguing for the ugly opposite of the negative label from the perceived Normal. Down Syndrome children should not be called “Special” by birthright just because of the genetic makeup of their parents. To condescend to those not deemed “Normal” by making them extraordinary still sets them apart from the rest of us in a over-undulating — but ultimately false — venerable adoration.
That stratification infantilizes and labels them incapable of achieving anything that isn’t given to them. Condemning them on either side of Normal still eschews them from the core of us. The best solution to the Normal conundrum is to just call people: People.
We all have different needs. Some needs are better hidden than the needs of others, but that distinction with a difference should not be used to separate us from each other, or to provide reason for placing one person’s needs above or below another’s based on a misconstrued idea of what it means to be “Normal.”