We call them mentally handicapped – when they are just different

100 years ago, schools for mentally handicapped children were called “Institutions for the imbecile and the mentally deficient”. Our vocabulary has prettied up somewhat since those sinister days whenever we deal with other humans, those that are different from what we would consider as the mainstream today. The label, however, is still the same. It’s an “Us versus them” story where we like to believe that “we” are the good ones and “they”, well they are something that is not up to the standard we have defined. We won’t say the word deficient or lesser but everything in our systems, administrations or treatments of those others heavily suggests this. Our pre-judgemental mental filing system helps here.

We can cover it up in as much politically correct banter as we like to, the underlying meanings have not changed for a little bit.

Without wanting to delve deeper into our shortcomings as humans, let’s take a dispassionate look at the issue.

We all like to think that we are all somehow the same, that there is a standard human and anyone part of the standard group is somehow comparable to the other. Similarly, there is the non-standard human, the handicapped which is different. However, as we have grown to be more civilized on the outside nowadays, we try to bring those non-standard humans somehow into our nice little standard world. This all in order to enable those “poor” beings to enjoy the same benefits we standard humans are taking for granted.

Those non-standard humans are the handicapped and as regards those unable to walk, to see or to hear, we have developed all kinds of aids to make them live a life we non-handicapped – and even themselves – may deem worth living. Moreover, some societies are even advanced enough to try bringing the mentally handicapped into the fold.

Except that – this all is not true. At least not for the mentally different.

Almost anything in life distributes along the bell curve.

At the beginning of the 20th century, an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, discovered the so-called power laws from which the theory of the bell curve derives. According to this theory that has been utterly proven in many settings and under many different circumstances, people always distribute along the bell curve according to very predictable patterns. There is always the two extremes of the curve, let’s call it the black and the white of the spectrum and then there is the bulk of people squeezing together around the middle in a big bump.

My beard is a bell curve ...

My beard is a bell curve …

Applied to children and handicaps this would translate into having some very gifted children, then the average masses and at the end of the spectrum there are those with a handicap.

If we push this theory a little further we could compare children to jars that are more or less filled with the good stuff. The extremely gifted ones would then be those where the jar is rather full, the mediocre masses have a jar more or less filled and the handicapped children have a rather empty jar.

Reality, though, is very, very different.

Let’s first concentrate on the stuff the jar is filled with – supposedly. As in our imagination, this mythical substance would be something uniform. The more, the better. But there is no such thing as some uniform substance that makes people more or less smart. In recent years more and more scientists start to question the foundations upon which we have built or people classification system.

The reality is that as personalities are complex, so is intelligence and creativity. It’s the collaboration of many different factors (personality traits, upbringing, formalized education, life circumstances, competitive pressures, …) that produce a unique footprint of every person. We really are about 8 billion individuals where not one is comparable to the other.

But surely they can be grouped. Really?

Before the dawn of the industrial age, there was no grouping of any people except maybe be family provenance or affiliation to some gild or rank. However, those were all external factors that had little to do with the individual itself. Mass industrialization and the subsequent dawn of consumer economics have brought a drive to standardize everything – from screws to humans. Suddenly, the human being had to fit into the optimized industrial process and in order to satisfy the need for ever more docile worker bees and credulous consumers, people had to conform to patterns and standardized ways of getting out an education for example.

That’s when school as we know it today was invented. Children were squashed into cubes called classrooms and a standardized curriculum was meted out. In the end, the industrial society needed workers that could sit still for regulated hours and do boring work plus read formalized instructions. The industry age needed semi-smart robots and that’s what schools today try to give it. A human that is conditioned to function as a machine.

However, there is a glitch. The industrial age is already deep in its sunset phase. Real robots – those made from steel and plastics – are becoming increasingly smart and start to kill those jobs for semi-automatons that our schools produce. This means that our education system produces people that the professional world does not need anymore.

Some say that we are just in another cycle of the industrial age and that we just need more of the same in order to make those kids fit the requirements of tomorrow’s economy. We need creative people, people that do new things and are infused with entrepreneurial spirits, people that are unique and that will enrich this world with their uniqueness. The equalization factory called school cannot do that. The Prussian education model that has for centuries produced reliable cogs for the system is about as adequate for our 21st-century requirements as shovels are for putting a nail into the wall.

Let’s come back to the bell curve. Current diction says that the bulge on the curve goes into “regular school” and those on the fringes go to a special school for mentally handicapped. The first problem is that the bulge is artificially inflated in order to bring as many as possible into regular school system making a mockery of the theory of averages and also squeezing those round pegs (the children) that are on the fringes of the bulge (I am not talking about the true fringes but the fringes of the 80% average) into square holes.

However, the bigger problem is that the fringes are not 20%. What we call the average is in fact just 20% of the spectrum containing 80% of the population. This means that 80% of the spectrum is populated by 20% of the population. This means also that diversity within the fringe group is much, much higher than within the average bulge. With other words, many fringe dwellers are more like some bulge dwellers than some other fringe dwellers. However, they are all going to the same school for mentally handicapped. Not smart – ain’t it?

That’s a lot of banter for telling you that things are not quite that simple. Because there is no spectrum and there is no bulge and there is no fringe (or fringes). Reality is more like a 3-dimensional spectrum.

The spectrum – as we know it – is a line with a beginning and an end and it divides the world into black, white and shades of gray in between. It’s a bit like the famous IQ test, which also gives you a number that tells you where on the spectrum line you are.

It's not quite that simple lads ...

It’s not quite that simple lads …

How would you do that for an inarticulate autist who reads at the age of 2, writes full text at 5 and performs mental multiplication with 3 digit numbers at the age of 7? However, at the same time, this same Autist does not really speak except for single words. He is socially inarticulate but clearly highly intelligent. I know what I am talking about as I am describing my son here – and in this sense, he is not unique to this world.

Frankly speaking and digging up memories from my own school time, none of the classrooms I spent my time with was uniformly the same as all the others. I spent the first two years of school (6-7) in small village elementary school, then moved into a bigger one with a different classroom composition (8-9), then moved on to secondary school in a small town for 3 years after which my parents moved and I saw two more classroom compositions in one more school.

I was exposed to 5 different classroom compositions when I was done with mandatory schooling in Austria and it struck me that pupil distribution patterns were similar in all of them. They all had a group of nerds that was more shy and retracted, there was also the bully with his acolytes, the classroom beauty with her sweet but snooty friends, and a whole lot of oddballs in between. I was an oddball.

There was very little social mingling between the different groups and especially the oddballs like me did not have a lot of friends. I quickly was a loner who did “his thing” which made me appear even weirder to the others. Depending on what was asked for, the one or the other group excelled or failed.

If kids in a regular classroom (I am just refering to the inflated 20% in the middle) are so diverse – how must diversity then be in a classroom for the 80%. That’s right – its like putting aliens together with medieval princesses bent on kissing frogs. And the frogs are jumping about in between. There are those that clearly need our help as they are severely disabled and also those with sensitive but razor sharp and astonishingly creative minds. Its diversity at its best and if we are just a little bit serious about all the banter on the value of diversification, then we must stop seeing them all as something less worthy than what we consider normal.

As there is no normal. Normal is a group in the middle that we are most used to but to others they are more alien than the outliers. If an inteligent alien landed on earth and had to pick a person to speak with, its hard to believe he (or she) would choose the average Joe. It would probably look for something special able to relate to its much more advanced mind – able to mold around its sophisticated thinking quickly. The so-called normal person mind might be to ossified to adapt quick enough.

The world changes quickly now and ages old norms are being crushed with stunning speed.

Maybe the challenges of the future need the incredible uniqueness or diversity of those today labeled mentally handicapped in order to deal with the challenges of the future.

There are those that only need our help and we owe it to ourselves and to them to give them the best we have in order to make their lives worthwhile, not just some dump called the school for mentally handicapped. And the others are mixed bags full of nuts, raisins, dried fruits and some other stuff that makes life rich and rewarding.

Let’s stop look at pupils and start to look at them for the individuals they are. We really need them.

2 replies
  1. paul jackson
    paul jackson says:

    Herr Huber,

    My paternal grandfather was State Com’r for Mental Health in a small, somewhat backwards state in the US, circa 1960. When he took the helm, he was dealing with a large prison population, chained naked to the walls and hosed off daily as part of their regimen.

    Among many other changes, he installed a traffic signal in the State School square, so the wards could learn to cross the road, when traffic was stopped with the signal. He believed that even the most profoundly mentally disabled had some capacity to learn. It was one of his many successes.

    Today, many jurisdictions deal with ‘different’ people by medicating them or simply buying them a bus ticket to another state. We call this progress?

    • Rudolf Huber
      Rudolf Huber says:

      Dear Mr. Jackson, your grandfather saw the potential in people, however, hopeless it might sometimes seem to outsiders. The quality of a society can be seen on its treatment of those that need help and who better to look at than those handicapped? In Austria it’s not very different from the US. The public administration offers all kinds of institutions that will drug the kids so they are not a burden anymore. For me, that’s a bit like a very slow murder as their personalities are erased very slowly. And many parents tag along as they don’t want to take the burden themselves. But I also meet those that have devoted their entire lives to their challenged children and they ensure that my faith in humanity rests intact.

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