Depictions of disabilities in popular culture

To read on Special Ed Post website:

Labels Misrepresent People with Intellectual Disabilities


A 2010 law removed “mental retardation” from all federal statutes.

by Anne McGraw Reeves –

One of my daughter’s favorite college courses this year examines depictions of disabilities in popular culture.

Her classmates, including some on the autism spectrum, watch and discuss portrayals of physical and intellectual disabilities in advertising, TV and movies.

During one recent class, a group of visitors with autism and Down syndrome discussed their revulsion of such negative labels as “retarded” and “retard.” They criticized stereotypes that portray them as being only helpless, worthless and stupid.

They showed a YouTube video of a teenager pretending to have Down syndrome as an example. As he walked through a Walmart, the actor approached other shoppers saying he was lost and looking for his mother. His friend filmed the “retard’s” hijinks.

The video’s callous depiction of a person with Down syndrome shocked and horrified the class. But no one more than my daughter, who realized she recognized its young stars. They had attended her high school, 240 miles away from that Syracuse classroom.

“There are a lot of negative connotations associated with ‘retard’ and ‘retarded.’ People use the words to describe when someone acts stupid, crazy or out of control,” she said.

“It’s horrible because they’re making fun of someone’s disability. They’re using it as a joke.”

At the turn of the 20th century, people with mental illness were often institutionalized. As societal perceptions changed, their disabilities became more accepted and they were mainstreamed into regular classrooms and workplaces.

The terms changed, too. “Feeble minded” became “mentally retarded,” and eventually “intellectually disabled.”

The American Association on Mental Retardation voted to change its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in 2006. Two years later, The Associated Press removed “mentally retarded” from its stylebook.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a law mandating the removal of “mental retardation” in favor of “intellectual disability” in all federal statutes.

But “retarded” and “retard” have become part of our vernacular. And so has their misrepresentation.

The Urban Dictionary defines retard as “an offensive term used to refer to someone acting in an irritating or generally stupid way,” as in ‘What a crazy thing to do. You’re such a retard!’ or “That was so retarded!’”

People with intellectual disabilities and their families and friends do not find those references humorous. In fact, they would like to see them disappear forever.

But it’s not just words that foster false perceptions of people with intellectual disabilities.

Just recently, a local mental-health advocate wrote to officials at the Mechanicsburg Area School District objecting to a class field trip to the Frightmare Asylum, part of the Lancaster-area attraction Field of Screams.

The fake former mental hospital allegedly housed “unwanted, neglected and criminally insane patients” who now seek revenge against visitors.

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