Mental Retardation And Education Essay

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A press release dated February 20, 2007, announced that the American Association for Mental Retardation (AAMR) was changing its name to the American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). Proponents of this change have argued that preference for the term intellectual disability over mental retardation echoes the preference in the organization to embrace a social ecological rather than a medical/individual-deficit framework, one that they claim is less offensive to persons with intellectual disabilities.

The term mental retardation has thus joined the ranks of other pejorative terms such as imbecile, idiot, moron, feeble-minded, and retard—terms that nevertheless still persist in contemporary culture to refer to individuals who are perceived as lacking intelligence, autonomy, and personhood. For students with intellectual disabilities, it still remains to be seen how this change in terminology will affect their educational and social experiences in U.S. public schools, where the almost century-old debate over how and where to educate these students still persists. This entry recalls the history of the debate and summarizes current thinking.

Historical Record

Although disability studies have offered different ways to conceptualize difference in educational and other contexts, intellectual disability continues to be theorized via a deficit model where persons with intellectual disabilities are characterized as having significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills (the AAMR definition). On the other hand, sociologists such as Bogdan and Taylor, Braginsky and Braginsky, and Mercer have argued that the term mental retardation is a defective and crude metaphor that tends to club together disparate and amorphous behaviors and conditions to define in absolute terms the pathology of mental retardation. Although not denying that there may be “real” differences in intellectual ability among individuals, they argue that measures of these intellectual differences, such as IQ and adaptive behavior scales, offer only an imprecise and often restricted sample of the wide range of intellectual functions and behaviors. Moreover, they argue that linking the social construct of intellectual disability with biological inferiority is a modern myth derived from social practices that draw on pathological/behaviorist discourses to exert social control on bodies and minds that refuse such control.

To explain why Western society, unable to effectively regulate difference, has sought to expunge or at least distance itself from it, philosopher Etienne Balibar uses the term prophylaxis—the need to preserve one’s own identity from all forms of mixing, interbreeding, or invasion; this creates the icon of the “other body,” which must be excluded from “normal” life. Thus, since the early twentieth century, people with intellectual disabilities—often described as morons, imbeciles, and the feeble-minded—were sometimes exposed to the violence of eugenics, seen as a parasitic and predatory class that was a menace and danger to the community. These same ideologies interpenetrated the educational discourses of the early twentieth century, when the enforcement of compulsory education laws forced common schools to educate immigrant children who were not so easily socialized into accepting the prevailing norms. Rather than explaining these difficulties as societal (e.g., poverty, illiteracy, etc.), the schools located these difficulties in the child, who was described as physically, morally, or intellectually defective.

Thus, the first special education classes contained over-age children, so-called naughty children, and the dull and stupid children for whom school had little or nothing to offer. The introduction of special education classes constructed a bifurcated school system—one for “special” students with educational handicaps and one for “normal” students—what can be seen as a thinly disguised way to preserve the status quo. Those students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities, unable to effectively transform themselves into what society saw as productive citizens, were often segregated in large, state-run institutions situated on self-sustaining campuses.

The 1954 Brown decision and 1960s civil rights legislation made disabled people, their families, and their advocates increasingly aware of the injustice of exclusion based solely on physiological/intellectual differences. They contended that educational segregation on the basis of disability was also an unconstitutional practice. Similar to Brown, two landmark cases of 1972, Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Citizens (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Mills v. Board of Education, were instrumental in gaining passage of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975, also known as P.L. 94-142. The law said that students with intellectual disabilities have a right to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. In 1990, P.L. 94-142 was reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a more comprehensive law that not only provides supportive funding to the states but also governs how students with disabilities will be educated.

Current Debate

More than twenty-five years after the passing of EAHCA, the debate about how best to educate students with intellectual disabilities still persists and is represented by two camps loosely defined under the rather misleading labels of “positivists” and “postmodernists.” Scholars such as Kaufmann, Sasso, and Gerber are among those described as the positivists; they have argued that the most valuable knowledge about pedagogical practices for students with intellectual disabilities resides within the social science–based disciplines and should be based on scientifically validated research before widespread distribution. They are critical of postmodernist scholars, describing them as “dangerous” and accusing them of espousing bad education reforms and ineffective professional practices that include inclusive education, whole-language literacy, and constructivist instructional practices.

Disability studies scholars, in concert with the disability rights movement, have steadfastly supported inclusive policies and have argued that the perceived problems in special education have more to do with how the concepts of disability and inclusion have been interpreted than with anything else. Danforth and Rhodes, Brantlinger, Taylor, and Gallagher, among others, have argued that the failure to question and deconstruct the category of intellectual disability contributes to the devaluation and stigmatization of students with disabilities. They argue that most special education programs operate from a deficit model, where the consumer (i.e., the student with a disability) is perceived as having some inadequacy, shortcoming, failure, or disease; using this model limits the educational possibilities for students with disabilities.

Taylor rejects even a progressive concept like the least restrictive environment, which holds that special education students should be educated in an environment as close as possible to the mainstream classroom. That standard does, in fact, legitimize restrictive environments, sanctions infringements of the rights of people with disabilities, and directs attention to physical settings rather than to the services and supports people need to be integrated into the community, he says.

Therefore, in the current context of the continuing debate, interpretation of the social construct of intellectual disability and the least restrictive environment determines the form of educational experiences and social possibilities for students with intellectual disabilities.


  1. Bogdan, R., & Taylor, S. (1994). The social meaning of mental retardation: Two life stories. New York: Teachers College Press.
  2. Brantlinger, E. (1997). Using ideology: Cases of nonrecognition of the politics of research and practice in special education. Review of Educational Research, 67, 425–459.
  3. Carlson, L. (2005). Docile bodies, docile minds: Foucaultian reflections on mental retardation. In S. Tremaine (Ed.), Foucault and the government of disability (pp. 133–142). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  4. Danforth, S. (2004). The postmodern heresy in special education: A sociological analysis. Mental Retardation, 24(6), 445–458.
  5. Gallagher, D., Heshusius, L., Iano, R. P., & Skrtic, T. M. (2004). Challenging orthodoxy in special education: Dissenting voices. Denver, CO: Love Publishing.
  6. Kaufman, J. M. (2002). Education deform: Bright people sometimes say stupid things about education. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

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