By: Father Raymond J. de Souza
In October, Barack Obama signed a new law that prohibits the U.S. government from referring to the “mentally retarded” in any of its laws and regulations. The term to be used instead is “intellectual disability.” Given the harshness with which it strikes the ear, the word “retarded” has long since dropped out of common usage, but it still survives in official policies.
The law is called Rosa’s Law, after a nine-year-old Maryland girl with Down’s syndrome. Her official classification at school was “mentally retarded,” which struck her mother as hurtful. The U.S. Congress passed the law in response to Rosa’s case, but also in response to a long campaign by the Special Olympics to end the use of the “R-Word,” as their campaign puts it.
Timothy Shriver, president of the Special Olympics, was on hand with several special Olympians for the signing ceremony. All of which brought to mind another White House ceremony—the one in which President Reagan conferred on Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Timothy’s mother and founder of the Special Olympics, the Medal of Freedom. It was 1984, sensibilities were different and the president praised Ms. Shriver for her heroic labor “on behalf of America’s least powerful people, the mentally retarded.”
Ms. Shriver—whose character and achievements far surpass those of her more celebrated brothers, JFK, RFK and Teddy—did more than anyone else to bring the mentally disabled out of the shadows and into the light. She long used the language of her day, of course, but latterly campaigned against the use of the R-word.
Yet it was her willingness to use it that began to break down the stigma and shame around mental disability. She wrote a landmark article in 1962—while JFK was president—in The Saturday Evening Post in which she put the matter starkly: “Rosemary [Eunice’s and JFK’s sister] was mentally retarded.” In 1962, the frank admission that there was, in the most glamorous American family, a mentally disabled daughter was a major milestone.
“Like diabetes, deafness, polio or any other misfortune, mental retardation can happen in any family,” she wrote. “It has happened in the families of the poor and the rich, of governors, senators, Nobel Prize-winners, doctors, lawyers, writers, men of genius, presidents of corporations—and the president of the United States.”
It was Eunice’s love for Rosemary that motivated her to improve the lot of the “retarded” children of her time. Six years later she would found the Special Olympics. That 1962 article illustrates the urgent need for her work then, so great was the shame around mental disabilities.
“Even within the last several years, there have been known instances where families have committed retarded infants to institutions before they were a month old—and ran obituaries in the local papers to spread the belief that they were dead,” Ms. Shriver wrote. “In this era of atom-splitting and wonder drugs and technological advance, it is still widely assumed that the future for the mentally retarded is hopeless.”
It’s hard to imagine that parents would send their mentally disabled children away and pretend they were dead, rather than bear the blessed burden of raising them.
If Rosa had been born in the 1950s, she would not be in a regular Maryland school, classified—as she is now—as intellectually disabled. She might well have been shuttered in an institution, thought to be dead.
Yet today, Rosa’s situation is even more remarkable. Approximately 90% of all babies diagnosed with Down’s syndrome in the womb are aborted. The technological advances that Ms. Shriver thought would help the mentally disabled are now employed to prevent them from ever seeing the light.
We insist that harsh words are not used in regard to the mentally disabled, but the most lethal words today in medicine are those that announce Down’s syndrome. It is far better to be diagnosed with terminal cancer as an adult than to be diagnosed with Down’s syndrome as an unborn baby. No cancer has a 90% death rate within a month.
In 1962, there were live children and fake obituaries. In 2010, there are dead children and no obituaries. The late Ms. Shriver did not consider that an improvement.
If Rosa is like almost all Down’s syndrome children, she is probably preternaturally gifted at showing love and transmitting joy. Those who know such children would be horrified to speak of them in anything but the gentlest language.
If, that is, they get a chance to speak of them at all.
Fr. Raymond de Souza is a Queen’s Alumnus (BA honors in economics and a master's degree in public administration). He also holds a master's degree in economics and politics from the University of Cambridge, England. Subsequently, he began studies for the priesthood, earning a Licence in Sacred Theology from the Santa Croce University in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Kingston in July, 2002. Fr. Raymond is a frequent contributor to various publications, including the National Post, The National Catholic Register, and First Things.