My interest in disability issues is twofold: I have used a wheelchair since sustaining a spinal cord injury in 1975, and I was a school psychologist for over 30 years, working with children with a variety of disabilities. On learning about “Spread the Word to End the Word,” I had a mixed reaction. While I agree that it is important to reduce the stigma and name-calling associated with many disabilities, I don’t agree with focusing on this one particular label.
As a school psychologist, I would evaluate kids to help plan appropriate educational programs and determine eligibility for special education services. In my reports, I would write, “He scores within the range of mild mental retardation (or whatever the current euphemism was that the State Department of Education required).” The language changed over the years, though, as the same old stigma reattached itself to each new term. But everybody really knew they all referred to retardation, which in the clinical way we used it meant that the child so described learned at a slower rate than his peers and might eventually reach a plateau earlier than his peers. The range of terms included developmental cognitive disabilities, developmental delay, cognitive impairment, intellectual disability, etc. Equally important, and another factor to be considered, was the child’s adaptive behavior, his ability to handle activities of daily living. A child with good adaptive skills would have a better chance of functioning well in school and later on the job. The evaluation done by myself and the other team members was helpful in setting high but realistic expectations for the child and developing a plan for working towards those goals. All children can learn both academic and adaptive skills, but the important thing was and is determining how to bring out the best in a given individual, regardless of what terminology we use at any given time.
The problem with any label is using it for teasing, name-calling, or purposely trying to hurt the other person. Labels that are in the public vocabulary can also be used inadvertently in ways that hurt another person’s feelings. Sometimes there are specific personal or cultural reactions to a particular label. The term “r word” bothers me because it makes it sound like the word and the people being referred to are so horrible that they are unmentionable. The word isn’t dirty – it’s the way it is used that is objectionable. What we need is to teach respect, kindness and caring towards all people. Kids are masters of being mean, teasing, distorting someone’s name, or throwing around hurtful labels. Change or eliminate the label, and they’ll find something else to use to attack those who are different from themselves. I think what we need to combat is much broader than a single label. We need to combat negative attitudes towards disability and individual differences. Instead, we need to build respect and acceptance of a wide range of people, recognizing their individual skills and talents even if they have limitations.
Paula Fox received a B.A. in psychology from Brandeis University in 1968 and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from University of Minnesota in 1972. For two years, she worked at Hennepin County Medical Center in an interdisciplinary clinic evaluating young children with complex learning and behavior problems. After recovering from a spinal cord injury in 1975, she spent over 30 years working as a school psychologist in Robbinsdale Area Schools until retiring in 2009. When Shelly Christensen established the Minneapolis Jewish Inclusion Program for People with Disabilities, Fox served on her community advisory committee. She is married to Norman Fox and has one daughter, age 30.