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High School Yearbook Disgustingly Brands Special Needs Students as ‘Mentally Retarded’

By Meredith Carroll |

Mesquite High School

Where was Mequite High School's faculty yearbook adviser?

I worked on my high school yearbook and, as an aspiring writer, it was a great early lesson in the great responsibility that comes along with the printed word: Once it’s out there, you can’t take it back — for better or worse.

We had a faculty yearbook adviser who was pretty hands-on, which meant most errors, large and small, would be caught by a more-trained, mature eye. He is obviously long gone, as evidenced by a serious yearbook fail at my alma mater last year in which an alleged bully holding a dismembered head and hand was depicted and labeled as “Most Feared by Freshmen” in the superlative section.

“Moving forward, we will ensure that the faculty adviser of the yearbook conducts a thorough review of each page so that the yearbook’s content is consistent with the District’s code of conduct/beliefs and there are no offensive photos or statements suggesting we condone inappropriate behavior.”

That’s how the Mamaroneck School District’s superintendent tried to wave away the lack of oversight about the incident. It was absurd, of course, because talking about moving forward explained exactly nothing about how that made it in the book in the first place.

A school in Texas is even more-cagey in explaining how a similarly disgusting error made it to print.

In the Dallas-area Mesquite High School’s yearbook, students with special needs were labeled as “mentally retarded,” according to the New York Daily News (via KDFW in Dallas-Fort Worth).

In a section dedicated to students with disabilities, it said in the yearbook the children were “both blind and deaf, as well as mentally retarded.”

The parents of the special needs students were understandably upset, as was The Arc, which is an organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The word “retarded” and “retardation” are considered derogatory, according to The Arc’s website. You know, and all civilized people.

As a result, all students at Mesquite High School had to return their yearbooks, which is said to have upset them. For their part, school district officials apologized “earnestly” for the incident. The school principal is expected to personally call and the “offended families.”

New yearbooks are expected to be distributed this week.

I still wonder how there’s no mention of a faculty yearbook adviser in the mea culpa process at Mesquite High School. Where was he or she in this process? How does something so offensive go unnoticed? Kids make mistakes, but in a situation like this, what is the adult excuse? And is the school doing enough to explain to the yearbook staff why this was not OK? How about explaining to the “upset” students why their yearbooks had to be turned in? Or is the hasty official apology without much explanation supposed to suffice?

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About Meredith Carroll


Meredith Carroll

Meredith C. Carroll is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Aspen, Colorado. She can be found regularly on the Op-Ed page of The Denver Post. From 2005-2012 her other column, "Meredith Pro Tem" ran in several newspapers, as well as occasionally on The Huffington Post since 2009. Read more about her (or don’t, whatever) at her website. Read bio and latest posts → Read Meredith's latest posts →

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27 thoughts on “High School Yearbook Disgustingly Brands Special Needs Students as ‘Mentally Retarded’

  1. goddess says:

    Wow. It always was a medical diagnosis while my son was alive, and he was categorized as MR/DD (mentally retarded/developmentally delayed). You can call it whatever term is the current politically correct one, but it all boils down to the same thing.

  2. Meredith Carroll says:

    @Goddess — There was also a time when the N-word was acceptable, but that time has passed. I’m not a huge PC-person, but I think it is just a fact that some words hurt and should not be used.

  3. bob says:

    One wonders how someone might go about requiring that someone else return something which they have (presumably) purchased.

  4. Jordan says:

    I too have a hard time with this because when I was getting my undergrad in Psych, we were told that the medical term to use was MR. In my job now as a Social Worker I just reviewed a patient chart the other day and in the description it stated, an 18 y/o F with severe MR. Could part of the problem be that the medical community still uses the term “retarded”?

  5. goddess says:

    I didn’t say I used it- I don’t in relation to any but my very OWN experience with it- out of believing you all when you say it offends you. I am simply saying: as a parent to a child that WAS mentally retarded, the diagnosis and term did not offend ME. I certainly don’t regard it on par with racist labels. An outdated medical term? If you like.

  6. goddess says:

    Jordan- things may have changed, but when I was in that system, the Dx of mental retardation opened up all kinds of services that would be covered by insurance and various agencies.

  7. Tamara says:

    Oh for heavens sake! I know lots of people who were in “Special Ed” and the term used was mentally retarded and is still what we sometimes call it. Not out of disrespect, but because that is how we learned it. *I have several close family members who are/were special needs* We can’t keep up with all this politically correct stuff. Give it a couple years and “special needs” will be politically incorrect as well.

  8. goddess says:

    Yup. Disabled is now differently-abled- yet the relative deficits remain the same regardless of the term used.
    I remember the PT and OT being outraged when my son’s Dx came in MR/DD. I was nonplussed. The use of the term didn’t make him so, and using a euphemism didn’t improve his mental status either. and in his case, being non-verbal altogether, until a communication system was found or developed to even be able to understand his basic needs, the lack of that term was not going to put him in mainstream classrooms & situations, or give him those capabilities!

  9. goddess says:

    Ok- so what IS the actual medical dx term for it now? I keep finding myself starting to type it in my posts to explain myself, but cannot find the right term. I won’t use something vague like “developmentally delayed”- as it doesn’t really differentiate neurological deficits that manifest physically from those that manifest mentally, and those that manifest across the board.

  10. goddess says:

    This is interesting:
    “The terms used to describe this condition are subject to a process called the euphemism treadmill. This means that whatever term is chosen for this condition, it eventually becomes perceived as an insult. The terms mental retardation and mentally retarded were invented in the middle of the 20th century to replace the previous set of terms, which were deemed to have become offensive. By the end of the 20th century, these terms themselves have come to be widely seen as disparaging and politically incorrect and in need of replacement.[2] The term intellectual disability or intellectually challenged is now preferred by most advocates in most English-speaking countries. Clinically, however, mental retardation is a subtype of intellectual disability, which is a broader concept and includes intellectual deficits that are too mild to properly qualify as mental retardation, too specific (as in specific learning disability), or acquired later in life, through acquired brain injuries or neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. Intellectual disabilities may appear at any age. Developmental disability is any disability that is due to problems with growth and development. This term encompasses many congenital medical conditions that have no mental or intellectual components, although it, too, is sometimes used as a euphemism for MR.[3] Because of its specificity and lack of confusion with other conditions, mental retardation is still the term most widely used and recommended for use in professional medical settings, such as formal scientific research and health insurance paperwork.[4]”

    2 Cummings, Nicholas A.; Rogers H. Wright (2005). “Chapter 1, Psychology’s surrender to political correctness”. Destructive trends in mental health: the well-intentioned path to harm. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-95086-4.
    3 Lawyer, Liz (2010-11-26). “Rosa’s Law to remove stigmatized language from law books”. Ithaca, New York: The Ithaca Journal. Retrieved 2010-12-04. “The resolution … urges a change from the old term to “developmental disability”"
    4 John Cook (5 July 2001). “The “R” Word”. Slate Magazine.

  11. goddess says:

    And oddly enough, these outdated terms once referred to the condition as well- but are used without the “un-pc” stigma:

    • Cretin is the oldest and comes from a dialectal French word for Christian.[20] The implication was that people with significant intellectual or developmental disabilities were “still human” (or “still Christian”) and deserved to be treated with basic human dignity. Individuals with the condition were considered to be incapable of sinning, thus “christ-like” in their disposition. This term is not used in scientific endeavors since the middle of the 20th century and is generally considered a term of abuse. Although cretin is no longer in use, the term cretinism is still used to refer to the mental and physical retardation resulting from untreated congenital hypothyroidism.

    • Idiot indicated the greatest degree of intellectual disability, where the mental age is two years or less, and the person cannot guard himself or herself against common physical dangers. The term was gradually replaced by the term profound mental retardation.

    • Imbecile indicated an intellectual disability less extreme than idiocy and not necessarily inherited. It is now usually subdivided into two categories, known as severe mental retardation and moderate mental retardation.

    • Moron was defined by the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-minded in 1910, following work by Henry H. Goddard, as the term for an adult with a mental age between eight and twelve; mild mental retardation is now the term for this condition. Alternative definitions of these terms based on IQ were also used. This group was known in UK law from 1911 to 1959/60 as feeble-minded.

  12. Meagan says:

    I was also under the impression that mentally retarded was the correct medical term. That doesn’t mean it has a place in the year book, but I think it’s a tad different from racial slurs, which have no history that is not degrading.

  13. Meredith Carroll says:

    @Goddess — Most of those words, like “idiot,” are words used everyday, for sure. I might get called an idiot, but I’m not developmentally delayed. Call a developmentally delayed person an idiot and it means something very different than if you call me an idiot.

  14. Samantha says:

    I realize that I have misunderstood the campaign against the word “retarded”. I thought the primary point was to stop people using the word as a short cut to meaning “doing something stupid”. This does not appear to be the problem here since “mentally retarded” was, until relatively recently, an acceptable medical term to describe some special needs children.

    I have no problem with a campaign to stop co-opting medically useful terms to mean something unpleasant. I can’t get so worked up (“disgusting”, really?) when someone uses an outdated term, correctly.

  15. Samantha says:

    The correct term is now “intellectually disabled”. So many “Mental Retardation” research centers have been renamed with “Intellectual and Developmental Disability”.

  16. goddess says:

    Meredith: Then why is it so terribly “un-pc”/taboo to call a typical person a “retard”? By your reasoning.
    Samantha: I agree. and by the citation above, using Mental retardation/retarded is not actually out-dated in the medical field, as I thought to be the case.
    I totally agree it’s a hurtful word to be slung about, but disagree with its removal from the medical lexicon. And when I had a child with medical conditions, I strove to learn each and every diagnosis by its correct terminology (ie: mental retardation, cortical atrophy, spastic quadriparesis, etc.) and the term for each and every procedure. It helped immensely as we moved between medical professionals including his therapists, teachers, specialists etc. I think I got rather stuck on correct medical terms at that time.

  17. Meredith Carroll says:

    @Goddess — I can’t speak to why it was removed from the medical lexicon, but it was. As for the difference between idiot and retard, wouldn’t you agree there are plenty of thing you and I can call each other that aren’t nice that we wouldn’t call people with less mental capacity? I might call you stupid (hypothetically; I think you’re actually quite thoughtful and intelligent), but I wouldn’t call a developmentally delayed person stupid – ever.

  18. goddess says:

    However, the “r” word has merited a special place in un-pc hell, as far as words go. You can certainly get away with calling someone an idiot far more easily than a retard without being called on it.
    But, taking this topic all the way back to your post. I don’t see the yearbook issue in terms of “disgusting”, or even derogatory or offensive, as quoted from your post. It’s usage was actually correct, and it was not used as a slur. To infer that only “uncivilized” people use the term is not only insulting, but totally incorrect since most of those using the term in its correct form probably have more education and experience using than both you and I put together.

  19. goddess says:

    Add: apparently it has not been removed from the medical lexicon after all.
    In case you skimmed, I’ll break it down: “mental retardation is still the term most widely used and recommended for use in professional medical settings, such as formal scientific research and health insurance paperwork”

  20. Shandeigh says:

    I’ve never understood the idea of renaming something just because people use it as slur. Stop people from using it at slur… sure, but to completely change the name of something? Make no sense… People will just start using the new name as a slur. Retarded in and of itself is not a bad word. You can not put it on the same level as the “N” word… there is no proper use for that word… there are several for the word “retard” in its various uses… some which don’t even apply to people. Fire retardant anyone?

  21. Jordan says:

    This is a form I fill out for work all the time and it is from the State of Missouri health department screening for mental retardation. I used the term retarded daily in discussing my patient caseload and no one bats an eye when I do it. When discussing delays that someone has, even with them sitting right there, I explain to their parents that due to their mental retardation, this this and this is the side effect. Maybe it’s my state and my area, but it’s not considered a slur at all. Now, if my child calls someone retarded that isn’t, then yes we talk about using the word inappropriately. As for the yearbook, the problem I have with this is, if the student’s are mentally retarded and that is the terminology the department of health is using, are the students really in the wrong for using it? I don’t think they should be punished, or made to feel bad, because they used the correct terminology for the diagnosis that their fellow students have.

  22. jenny tries too hard says:

    I’m not outraged. I have a child who has developmental delays/mental retardation. Retardation is what it is, and the kids were being recognized as going to that school, with their challenges. If the yearbook had called the kids themselves “retards” that would be offensive, like calling a student who is, yes, crippled by a leg injury or birth defect “a cripple”. The reason *that* would be offensive is that it reduces a person to one characteristic, not respecting him or her as a whole person. By the same token, you don’t refer to someone by just his/her race. But this? No, not offensive.

    Re: what civilized people use—-civilized people use proper, honest language. It’s only uncivilized to use the word “retard” or “retarded” as an insult. Much like the word “gay”. The N-word isn’t close, and here’s why: The N-word was only acceptable (in mixed company, from everyone’s lips) when the people it referred to were considered less than human. For people to use that word now brings up that time and places the person its used against back in the position of being treated as less than human. “Retarded” has been acceptable to people with that condition and their loved ones recently, used without a trace of derision, again, like “gay”. So it’s a fine word, by itself, but it can be perverted.

  23. Jackie says:

    I dont think this is a big deal either. Clearly the intent wasnt to offend anyone. It seems reasonable for people to be confused over what the appropriate terminology is.

  24. G says:

    Ten years ago we were taught that as a polite term. It’s a matter of time before “developmentally delayed” and “intellectually disabled” become insults. We need to change people’s mindsets, not terminology.

  25. shereen says:

    “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible” -Dalai Lama. If we are being asked to switch terms, then we can all try and do that. Once upon a time, people thought “Negro” or “colored person” was the kinder way to refer to an African American. Language changes over time. So if there is a community asking us to please consider not using one term, and choosing another, why is there resistance? There is a campaign urging us to not use “retarded” in our vernacular. We can be kind, not resistant, and honor their request.

  26. Kaycee says:

    People need to understand this is a Meredith Carroll article. Half of what she writes about is being outraged and offended for anyone but herself. MR is the correct medical term and it is used in diagnosing and the DSM-IV TR.

  27. goddess says:

    It’s a medical term. I WILL use it in the medical sense, though not the social sense. I HAD a child with mental retardation and I earned the right to use it when I describe his issues whenever I choose to do so. Euphemisms offend ME greatly. Can I choose all of them, bag ‘em up and demand everyone use the correct medical terms?
    Yes, Kaycee, exactly about the Dxing.

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