Quote of the day: WORDS

August 14, 2015


When he diagnosed my three-month-old, Fiona, with a chromosomal disorder, the redheaded, cherubic medical geneticist did not use the phrase “mentally retarded” — thank God, or the gods of rhetoric, or just the politically correct medical school the young doctor had attended. (He was my age, thirties, about to start a family of his own.) This was in 2012, one year before the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders replaced “mental retardation” with “intellectual developmental disorder.” So he could officially have said “mental retardation.” Instead he said that most people with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome “have intellectual disabilities to some degree.”

If [he] had used the term plenty of doctors still use when diagnosing children with my daughter’s syndrome, I would have fallen down a rabbit hole of grief…“Intellectual disabilities” was new, fresh, curious. “Most children like yours have intellectual disabilities to some degree,” the geneticist said, doing what champions of “person-first” language recommend: putting people first in the sentence and their condition second. He described something my daughter could have, like a pebble in her pocket or a cowlick in her hair, rather than declaring her to be something, giving her a label, a sticker on her shirt: Hello, My Name Is Mentally Retarded. Hello, My Name Is Stupid. Hello, I Am the Cousin of Moron and Cretin. Hello, My Name Is Broken.

The word cretin is from the eighteenth-century French crétin, meaning Christian. As in: Even though you’re disabled, you’re still a child of God. But if I were to say, “Hello, cretin,” to you, I doubt you’d get good Christian vibes. Before imbecile and moron and cretin, we had one overarching category: idiot. An idiot, declared a sixteenth-century English lawyer, “is so witless, that he cannot number to twenty, nor can tell what age he is of, nor knoweth who is his father or mother.” In 1910 American psychologist Henry H. Goddard placed people who scored below average on IQ tests into three categories. An “idiot” was an adult who functioned at a two-year-old level. (Today we use the phrase “severe intellectual disability.”) A “moron” was an adult who functioned at an eight-to-twelve-year-old level. (Today these people have “mild intellectual disabilities.”) The word imbecile was reserved for a person in between a moron and an idiot. A hundred years ago most people with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome would have been called “imbeciles.” I hope my daughter achieves the diagnosis of “mild intellectual disability,” but I know this is an optimistic goal. I also know that if I were living in the early twentieth century, I would be optimistically wishing my daughter might become a moron.

–Heather Kirn Lanier, “The R-Word,” The Sun, May 2015


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