As you may know by now I have recently started a new job as a special ed teacher without having actually trained as a special ed teacher. This is pretty challenging on top of the job being challenging anyway, and I’m trying to desperately read up on the concepts and theories of the discipline. In doing so I stumbled across a word that is one of the nastier ones flung around in English: retarded.
And I discovered that it is a good word. Or at least used to be.
See, special ed went through it’s development just like regular teaching. Concepts and ideas about children, learning and teaching have changed, change which is often (though not always) reflected in our schools. In its earlier stages, special ed saw children who were slow to learn as “defective”. Children who could more or less keep up with the classwork were “normal” and the other ones were broken, damaged goods, lacking. You see where this is going.
Then came science and studied children and how they learn. They put many things educators had long known on a scientific basis and formulated scientific concepts. One of the still most influential people in this area is the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who described the processes through which we learn and also formulated stages through which we develop.
All legitimate criticism aside (it relates mostly to how far you can take his models and where are limits of their application), his models are still important. As teachers we want and we need to challenge our students to help them in that development, which isn’t an automatism. We need to construct our input at the right level. Primary school teachers will endlessly use concrete things and pictures to teach their students. They need to literally take away five marbles to find out what 12-5 is.
What especially Piaget’s students found out was that not all children develop at roughly the same pace. Some children are much slower than the average, they stay behind, they are “retarded”. The concept as such was revolutionary. The children were no longer seen as defective, just slower. They were not inferior to their peers but would reach the same levels of cognitive development as their peers, just later. This had, and has, great importance for teaching children with special needs, as it means that we need to give them different input, teach them using a much more hands on approach than with their peers and most importantly, get them to the same place, just a little more slowly.
It’s sad to see how ableist ideas turned such a revolutionary concept into a nasty slur. It also shows that you need to change society, not just words. The slur does not mean what the word means in a professional context. It still means “broken and defective”.