The Stigma Surrounding The Developmentally Disabled

By Emily Young

The recent USA Today article discussing the Special Olympics also highlighted the sad truth that people with “mental retardation,” more recently re-labeled as developmentally disabled, often suffer isolation due to the stigma of the condition. People with MR (I will use this term here because it is what the article references) living in most communities still do not have friends, are not on teams or in groups, and do not get invited to social events. Maria Shriver says, “They don’t get a fair chance, and they deserve one.”

The stigma that MR youth experience is echoed in Pearl Buck’s book, The Child Who Never Grew, as she talks about her child being told that she can no longer come to tea parties at a neighbor’s house.

Governor Schwarzennegger states that giving opportunities like the Special Olympics to MR individuals will improve their quality of life, and more opportunities like these are needed. These individuals deserve the same human rights to health and happiness that non-disabled people do. As well, the inspiration coming from the courage displayed in events like the Special Olympics are inspiring, enriching, and de-stigmatizing for the rest of society.

To continue, the human right to health is often denied to individuals experiencing developmental disabilities by the health field, which reflects the social stigma of having MR through its practices. The USA Today article details how basic health care for those with MR often gets far less attention than research on the causes behind MR. The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee states in their study that as few as 30% of patients with developmental disabilities receive the specialty care they need, even in despite of the Surgeon General’s concern that MR individuals have increased risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease mental illness, and other problems. Despite personal accounts still occurring today of MR individuals experiencing discrimination from health practitioners, the federal government is working on the issue. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher has recently outlined seven ways to help people with developmental disabilities, including developing affordable community-based health systems and protecting their legal rights. As well, Congress has re-authorized the Developmental Disabilities Act of 1975.

Overall, there is still a sharp stigma surrounding people who are developmentally disabled, and it will take a mixture of policy, exposure, and model examples (like Republican governors supporting events like the Special Olympics) to overcome the discrimination and isolation to which our disabled neighbors are subjected.

Slight, A. (2007). “Schwarzenegger terminates retardation myths.” USA Today online. Retrieved on July 29, 2007 from Strategies for Increasing Career Education and Opportunities for Severely Mentally Retarded Persons