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.”


  1. Not really sure what I think about this yet… On the one hand separation any group from “normal” is detrimental both to the individuals separated and to the understanding of those from whom they are separated.
    On the other hand, as mentioned, “We all have different needs. Some needs are better hidden than the needs of others.” The distinction of a persons needs is commonly used to place students in “appropriate classes” thereby separating us from each other.
    “GATE” kids as well as “mentally challenged” kids are separated from “normal” kids so that teachers can better instruct their students. But this separation may lead to a child using the “R-word” or calling “GATE” students names such as “brain”, “nerd”, or “geek”.
    Would it be beneficial to educate everyone together as “normal”?

  2. Hi A S —
    I am a big proponent of mainstreaming all children together because in Real Life they will need to learn how to meet and interact with all strata of children and people and there will be “Normal” people and “Mentally Challenged” and, that other awful label, “Gifted” and everyone needs to learn how to get along with everyone else.
    Is it easier for the “Normal” students and teachers to separate the “Special Needs” children in a program of their own up the hall? Sure! Are the educations equal? No! Should they be equal? Yes!
    I do not believe we fully know the power of the mind and for us to arbitrarily pick a cutoff number to categorize kids as able and “disabled” is dangerous because kids become numbers and not people and we cannot know what is sinking in on what level or not.
    I think we should all be exposed to each other in one, big, giant, sloppy, unsophisticated mishmash of experiences and learning.
    We should outlaw homework and require everyone to socialize with each other more in person in the community.

  3. Hi David
    Interesting post, and one that provokes a lot of contradictory responses.
    On the one hand the idyllic Utopia you propose with everybody having their needs attended to and being treated with respect by all members of society is, of course, extremely alluring.
    But then I’m sure I don’t need to give you the origin of the word “Utopia” 😉
    The reality is that although we all have needs that are special to ourselves to a greater or lesser degree there are groups of people who cannot function in everyday society unless these needs are met.
    To say these people are abnormal may be unfair but at least the act of labelling ensures that they will receive the attention they need.
    As A.S. comments too, it may not be the best solution to throw people with these kinds of needs into the general mix. Especially not from an early age when (as you pointed out) kids will be quick to ostracise them.
    People are cruel and the current system revolves around financial security. Until you can change these two basic facts I think that some people are probably better off living with the label “not normal”.
    And besides, who wants to be labelled normal anyway … 😉

  4. I believe it is possible to “be exposed to each other” and socialize with other groups without being educated together.
    I had an elemetary school experience where the educators separated kids as previously mentioned so that each group would have more attention from the teachers but there were several activities that were integrated.
    I’m not convinced that equality in the quality of education means everyone taught together.
    If we removed numbers (ie. grades and test scores) all together there should be no difference in getting into Harvard/Yale or your local community college. It would be plausible for people who were unable to read or write to finish college or grad school simply by being there. I’m not sure what the value of education would be if there was no measure of learning required.
    If a measure of learning was required, then it would be sad for those who perpetually fail to meet the standard. I wouldn’t want to be an 80 year old trying to pass a 5th grade class.

  5. Mike —
    I never said “idyllic Utopia” — that is your take on my post but not my argument at all so I don’t accept the premise you are trying to press.
    I realize labels are convenient and easy and that is why they are applied. I’m just arguing to find a way to provide for everyone’s needs without stratification and separation and negative labeling that requires the person not be in the perceived mainstream in order to have their needs met.

  6. How do you measure learning, A S?
    IQ tests?
    What if there is a cultural bias in the tests that, by design, presses away students who may not have had the same training that is being “tested” because of financial or geographic or a decentralized learning situation?
    You appear to be arguing for separation based on performance and ability but where are you drawing those lines? How do you get around the arbitrary nature of forcing those separations?
    I believe we learn more from each other than from a textbook.
    I also don’t think there should be a penny’s worth of difference in the education offered at a Community College or a Harvard/Yale and I do not believe a student at Harvard is smarter than a student at a Community College. I believe the perceived separation of the two is one of branding and endowments and elitism rather than one of quantifiable excellence in the purpose of education.

  7. Absolutely – that was my take. I think it would be the ideal situation where nobody was “labelled” in order to give them what they need.
    My point was I don’t think society as it stands would support that and the changes required to get to that point would be huge.
    In the meantime labels, while not an ideal solution, can at least mean that people who need attention get it, rather than becoming lost in the system.
    “Vive la difference” – people are people and the wide variety should be celebrated.
    Unfortunately we live in an increasingly homogenised world. Until we stop trying to normalise everything from the apples in the supermarket to school test scores (and please, please can fast “food” be the first to go!) then it will be difficult for our children to accept that different does not equal bad.

  8. IQ Tests and grades are questionable. There are students that do not test well and there are students who may test well be are unable to apply what they have learned.
    There must however be some sort of testing to evaluate what has been learned and as unfair or elitist as it may sound, I would not wish to have a surgeon who does not know his/her right from left nor would I wish to have English teachers who does not know how to manage subject verb agreement nor a mechanic who does not know a carborator from a radiator.

  9. Hi Mike —
    I agree labels are here to stay because they’re easy to use and to comprehend and they become a sort of shorthand for defining complex issues into a simple nugget.
    It’s interesting to learn who is inventing the label. There is great power in naming something, in giving it a frame, and a box, and today the naming overrides the essence and the form.

  10. A S —
    I am still uncertain how you are overcoming the arbitrary differences used to separate people into manageable parts.
    Are you keeping, removing or re-creating the discriminatory application of labels to press people apart from each other instead of bringing us all together?
    No one here is arguing a surgeon shouldn’t know medicine or an English teacher shouldn’t know the language.
    If “IQ Tests and grades are questionable” what method do you plan to use to make sure you get the best MDs in medical school? Should performance count? Social skills? Bedside manner? Perfect scores?
    You and I both know first year medical students are not always the best candidates — they may be well-connected, they may have a family legacy at stake, they may be part of a minority enhancement system, they may be a geographical choice over an overflowing pool of local candidates… so how do you reconcile that fact with your necessary elitism charge?

  11. I never claimed to have a solution. I never said that I was for keeping or eliminating labels. I believe most labels in and of themselves can be neutral. Yet if you look at someone a certain way and call them “human” it can be used as an insult.
    Yes, IQ tests are questionable (even ones that state they are culturally fair since it may discriminate against people who are color blind when pattern recognition which includes color is involved.) Grades on a curve could fail a student who has 95% of the correct answers.
    I am merely stating that some sort of testing should be required.
    With regards to MD’s, perhaps one should also evaluate how one treats ones nurses.
    While I like the idea presented in the movie Patch Adams that we are all doctors and patients, I am not sure how well this would work in practice. Nor can I say I understand the educational system that you are presenting as ideal or how practical it would be.

  12. Sorry for the delay in responding to this one – I had to sit down and think hard before answering.
    I have rarely fallen into the *normal box* I have always been the “sqare peg” for one reason or another.
    In fact a while back I blogged about the number of “minority” groups that I belong to/have been placed in.
    I intensly dislike the use of words such as cretin, idiot, moron outside of their scientific/academic context – especially when they are used to make one person feel better an the expense of another. As a society we have a horrible tendency to need to put other people down to make ourselves feel good.
    My personal belief is that we are all equally different – unique if you prefer. Just as one person has red or blonde hair, another is good at art, english or science. Every human being is entitled to a level of respect as a human being – be they 8,35,90 and be their IQ’s 60, 100 or 150.
    I believe we should have equal opportunity to develop what talents and skills that we have – be they rocket scientists, artists or gardeners.
    In the UK the education system is aimed at the *average* the middle 80% , with those at either end of the spectrum less well catered for. Parents at both ends of the spectrum fight for the *different* needs of their children. The education system is also aimed solely at providing a workforce.
    Those with “special needs” children have to fight for help to even the most basic education, this particularly applies to those that have severe behavioural difficulties and disoders on the autistic spectrum. These include those with autism, dyslexia, ADD and Aspergers syndrome.
    Those with physical disorders such as blindness, deafness and lack of speech as well as limb deformity and other phsyical problems also have to fight for their right to education.
    The parents of gifted children have to fight equally hard to find places for their children in the public sector. Going up a class is frowned upon – providing extra classes and coaching is also the exception.
    Parents of gifted children often home educate.
    In the UK the schools that can educate all levels together are invariably private and fee paying. Most public schools are woefully ill equipped to manage the needs of anyone outside of that central 80%.
    My two youngest are a case in point. My son is moderately dyslexic. My youngest is at the top end of the IQ spectrum for her age and always has been. My son was lost at school and started having behavioural problems as a result. My youngest daughter stagnated at mainstream school and was getting bored and started getting behavioural problems as well.
    I was incredibly lucky to find a private school close by that catered for both of them. It is a school that specialised in teaching dyslexic children. Every teacher had to be able to teach dyslexic chidren effectively. They maintained between 25% and 40% dyslexic pupils. They also were well versed in managing dyslexic pupils, and had systems in place to assist them. They also had a pragmatic appaoch to their education. Dyslexic children were not obliged to study foreign languages – unlike those in state education. Instead they had extra english lessons, designed especially for dyslexics, which focussed on a wide range or techniques to help them. Alongside this there were a range of sporting, musical and artistic opportunities offered. All avenues of expression were explored.
    My son was put in the hockey team the first week he was there – it was the third team – but just that simple act improved his sense of self worth no end and was a vital part of re-building his self esteem.
    My daughter on the other hand was placed into special groups where her aqbility for maths and science was given free reign. She was allowed to substitute extra maths and physics for art (which she loathed). She was also a great sportswoman, musician, and was given opportunities to persue these to the full.
    None of these measures are available in state education – where schools are oblidge to follow the formula – or risk loosing their funding.
    The school attained above average stats on all the government set targets – in spite of their % of dyslexic pupils.
    I sincerely wish all schools could be like this. I think that they managed to be inclusive of 95% – with only the bottom 5% missing out.
    It can be done, it should be done.
    As an update – my son is now a fully qualified Life guard, Health and Safety Officer and Pool Manager with Centre Parks. He will (as of October) be qualified to teach Life Guarding. My daughter is just about to start her second year at Bath University studying Chemistry and Pharmacology – she will also be managing the Bath University
    Junior ( First Year) Rowing Team.

  13. Thanks for sharing such a passionate message, Nicola! I am glad you were able to fudge around the labels and the segregation to find the perfect learning situation for your children.
    I do not mind labels that are in applied in fact and not pity or prejudice.
    “Moderately Dyslexic” is much more appealing and “truthful” than “slow” and 20 years ago, “slow” or even “mildly retarded” would have been the label applied.
    “Down Syndrome” is much better and honest than “Special Child.”
    “Aspergers” is better than “Gifted” — and I am convinced that 20 years ago many of the “Gifted” students who tested well and worked hard but were socially inept were more Aspergers than the fuzzy “Gifted” label.
    Labeling is a hard thing to cope with because it is consecrated in the majority power and I know lots of parents who fight school districts against having their children labeled by the mainstream in anything other than the “average” 80% you mention because the labels are a context and a definition from which they cannot escape. The label follows them throughout their educational career while no label gives them much more leeway to play the system to their best advantage.

  14. I agree that negative labelling of children is one of societies worst traits – they do stick.
    It robs many of them of a chance.
    One of my friends had a child with Aspergers – who went through an awful lot of schools in the state system. Her response to *well he is a difficult child* was that it was they just didnt have the right teachers !
    Which makes you wonder if teachers were all taught to teach dyslexic pupils instead of seperating *special needs * education out for both techers and pupils – it might be a better system ?

  15. I think the educational system is still too teacher-based to be wholly effective. Students learn best and fastest from other students and the teacher should only be a facilitator to that end.
    Students are extremely smart in learning how to connect with each other on their own terms and if one student thinks differently than the group, the group can adapt to the student’s needs or find a way to bring the student into their mainstream purpose for the narrow reason of accomplishing the assignment.
    I don’t think there’s much merit in putting all the Aspergers students in one room while the Gifted are in another and the 80% are in another. Mix ’em up! Mingle them! Make them all work together to find the worth in each other to get the best possible grade.
    That coming together of various minds and disparate experiences — even if forced — is the prime way to become stronger as a community and a country.

  16. I dont have much experience inside the education system – what I do have – is from a user point of view from the outside.
    As much as I agree with what you hav said about mixing them all up, sadly I have seen too many *different thinkers* bullied and abused by both the group of students they are supposed to be working with , and then getting no assistance from the teachers.
    I think the best example of this is the number of pagan children bullied at school, and the high percentage numbers of bullied children that are now home educated.
    How do you stop the pack mentality which seems to be prevalent in todays schools ( certainly in the UK) from developing ?

  17. I understand there can be bullies in a classroom, Nicola, and that’s why it’s important for the teacher to be a true facilitator and make sure everyone is included. It can get ugly — believe me — because students do not want to wait for others to catch up.
    You break the pack mentality by breaking up the pack. You require behavioral standards. You enforce dress codes. You create a safe learning environment where bullies — both intellectual and physical — are not allowed to freely roam without punishment and remedies.

  18. Back to training the teachers properly/appropriately.
    Thank you David !
    For that last paragraph in particular ……….. I can suggest that is applied in another area.

  19. Certain areas of the lifestyle have diluted somewhat ……. the dress code has slackened, the edges have been blurred and yes they are turning into a pack !

  20. Hey Nicola –
    My mother taught the fourth grade for 40 years and is the self-obsessed master of the nine-year-old.
    The first thing she told me about children — when I was old enough to understand – was this:

    Children crave discipline. They want structure. They feel safe in having an authority figure tell them what to do and then everyone in the group does the same thing in the same time. They learn better of one mind than of many. The teacher, above all, is a disciplinarian first and a friend, never.”

    My mother wasn’t interested in corporal punishment, but she did want a quiet and respectful classroom and you only spoke if you were spoken to and you did not leave your desk unless you raised your hand and asked permission.

  21. Your mother sounds like a woman after my own heart.
    Sadly the pack I have to deal with is supposedly grown adults !

  22. Heh, Nicola! You are so funny! Break up that wolfpack!
    I teach the same way as my mother even at the university level. The students hate me for the first two weeks and then they learn we get much more done if we do it my way. No one overtalks anyone else. We raise our hands. We turn off our cellphones. If you whisper to your friend in the back row you come and sit next to me so I can hear you better. Just don’t be late. I don’t tolerate that rudeness.

  23. …Harr… and there’s no leather required!
    Students have a hard time because they don’t get that kind of “classroom control” from their other instructors. I often say “We don’t’ do that in this class.” By the end of the semester most of them have had a fine time and learned a lot. I get a lot of repeat business.

  24. And do you have coping strategies in place to make sure you stay as much in control as possible in areas outside of your control ? Do you always know where the exits , the toilets are ? Do you always have alternative transport already looked up in advance ?

  25. That’s an interesting question, Nicola. What you call “coping strategies” I call “having Plans B, C, D, E…” and so on!
    I am perfectly happy to let others take the lead. I am delighted to follow. In big groups I won’t volunteer to lead unless I’m asked. It isn’t important to me to always lead the wolfpack.
    I don’t ever like feeling stuck, though, so I pretty much always have a backup plan for everything I do.

  26. There was supposed to be /management added there after coping ……. but yes Plan A, B, C, ………
    And again I like to be asked ………….

  27. So where do you sit in the bar/restaurant ?
    In a corner back to the wall so you can see everyone coming and going ?

  28. Nicola —

    In a corner back to the wall so you can see everyone coming and going ?

    Of course! Where else is there to sit?
    I try to explain to people it’s an “Old West Poker Player” thing that is genetically encoded in me where I need to see the front door and know no one is sneaking up behind me to read my hand or put a Colt .45 against my head.
    Sometimes I’ll ask people in my group to move out of a chair so I can “have my seat” and it is never a comfortable request to make especially if we’ve never been to that restaurant before… or I’ve never met the people before…

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