Giving Special People their Due Rights

Whether we like it or not, all people are different and it is a reality that people have to face. People with mental retardation are quite from what is considered to be normal or average in physical appearance, learning abilities, or behavior. They may be exceptionally gifted, or they may be exceptionally limited in their abilities to learn or to function in life. Unfortunately, many societies throughout history have not readily accepted people with disabilities and instead viewed them as evil omens, demons, or even witches.

At one point in history, people with disabilities were court jesters or on display in public streets or parks. In our not-too-distant history, people with disabilities were hidden in institutions that provided inadequate care. During the Middle Ages especially, a mentally or physically “defective” person was often considered possessed by evil spirits. Some have felt that children with disabilities were God’s punishment for the sins of the parents.

Some Native American tribes murdered children who had disabilities; other tribes, however, worshiped them as gods, loving and protecting them. In recent years, society has been recognizing the special needs of these children and treating people with disabilities more humanely. Because of their special characteristics, people with mental retardation are a subject of many definitions because segments of society need to agree on how they term this condition. For example, the U. S.

Department of Education defines mental retardation as a “significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a child’s educational performance” (IDEA, 1997). The American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) defines it in a similar way: “Mental retardation is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills.

This disability originates before age 18” (AAMR 2002, p. 1). Lastly, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) deemed this disorder as “characterized by significantly subaverage intellectual functioning (an IQ of approximately 70 or below) with onset before age 18 years and concurrent with deficits or impairments in adaptive functioning” (APA 2000, p. 37).

Each of the three definitions has the inclusion of an impairment of adaptive functioning in common, while only the DSM-IV lists a specific intellectual quotient (IQ) score. Thus, the two major characteristics of mental retardation are limitations in intellectual functioning and limitation in adaptive behavior. With regards to enforcing the law, mental retardation is a vital issue when an accused claims that he or she has this condition or when a mentally-retarded person is denied of the usual rights bestowed upon normal people.

It was in 1927 when the Supreme Court was faced with its first case that addressed the rights of people with mental retardation. In Buck v. Bell, the Court upheld a state statute authorizing compulsory sterilization of “mental defectives. ” In dismissing the claim that this imposition wrongly discriminated against retarded people and thereby denied them equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, Holmes appeared to invoke “minimal scrutiny” (as it was later termed), holding that the legislature might reasonably find retardation both inheritable and socially harmful.

It was not until the 1970s that courts took a different, more protective stance toward retarded people. In so doing, they challenged the social attitudes of fear and aversion that lay beneath not only sterilization laws but also the general state policy, dating from the late nineteenth century, of excluding retarded people from community facilities (such as public schools) and consigning them to large, geographically isolated residential institutions.

Modern court decisions now involved two constitutional approaches. The first approach was to recognize a constitutional “right to treatment” for residents of state institutions. This right was initially formulated in 1971 when a federal district court held that brutal custodial conditions in an Alabama institution must be remedied by intensive educational and treatment programs conducted by a new team of professionally qualified staff. In Youngberg v.

Romeo (1982) the Supreme Court effectively endorsed this constitutional holding, deriving as a proposition of substantive due process that, although the state was not required to offer any services to retarded people, if the state chose to provide residential facilities, then those facilities must meet certain minimal standards. The second constitutional approach was initially formulated in 1972, when a federal district court overturned a state statute excluding retarded children from public schools on the ground that they were “ineducable”.

The court appeared to conclude that all retarded people were educable to some degree. This holding was quickly adopted by other federal courts to overturn similar state statutes and, moreover, was endorsed by Congress in the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (1975) requiring education of all children, no matter how severely impaired, as a condition on federal funding of public schools. Despite the two approaches, the invoking of rights for people with mental retardation is still not complete because they were required to be isolated in an institutional setting.

Critics decried that this policy is like racial segregation, which separated retarded people from contact with mentally normal people was invidious discrimination. This is why, in 1985, the Supreme Court finally did address the question whether mentally retarded people warranted specially protected constitutional status. The specific issue in Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc. (1985) was the validity of a local zoning ordinance that specifically excluded group residences for “feeble-minded” people, even though fraternity and sorority houses, dormitories, and nursing homes for “convalescents or aged” people were explicitly permitted.

In this case, the Supreme Court concluded that retardation classifications warranted no special judicial scrutiny for several reasons: the legitimate relevance of retardation for some classificatory purposes, the nonjudicial expertise seemingly required to evaluate such purposes, and the political strength of retardation advocates as evidenced by the 1975 congressional acts (notwithstanding that Congress had also acted against race and gender discrimination in recent decades).

The Court nonetheless invalidated the zoning ordinance on the ground that it was based merely on “vague, undifferentiated fears” about retarded people. This rationale does not readily fit the conventional conception of “minimal scrutiny” equal protection analysis, given that fears regarding the irrationality and uncontrollability of retarded people have some plausible claim to factuality, even though this claim is unreliably documented and inapplicable to most retarded people. In the recent years, the issue of mental retardation and the law was highlighted in the Atkins v.

Commonwealth (2000), where Daryl Atkins, a mentally-retarded person with an IQ of 59, was meted with a death penalty. At the time of the hearings, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-IV; APA, 1994) served as the basis for mental disorder diagnoses in courts of law. Diagnosis of Mental Retardation under DSM-IV requires the finding of three characteristics: 1. Valid measurement of an IQ below 70 2. Impairment in more than one area of adaptive functioning and 3. Onset of the disorder before the age of 18

Although not argued in court, of interest here are citations by the defense that Atkins had scored “below the 20th percentile in almost every standardized test he took” (p. 8). By definition, an IQ of below 70 represents mental ability at or below the 2nd percentile, significantly worse than the 20th. On September 25, 2001, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of Daryl Atkins. The Supreme Court held that the death sentence could not be imposed on someone who is truly mentally retarded.

Unfortunately, the Court did not define the criteria for deciding whether or not a person is mentally retarded, and to this day that issue is still unclear in the legal arena. In the global age it is quite surprising that the definition of how mental retardation is defined is still debatable, especially in the legal arena. Psychological IQ tests are still not enough to measure the degree of mental retardation. This is why, psychological tests need to be upgraded and some genetic measurements should be integrated with it to determine if the person is indeed mentally-retarded.

The courts should also clearly specify the criteria needed in order to classify people with this condition, so that courts in the future can fairly uphold the rights of special people. As genetic technology is now at the forefront, it will already be possible to finally measure mental retardation accurately. In this regard, using a new technology will break the definition barrier that hounds special people so that they can live like “normal” people, who have their human rights intact.

References .American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR). 2002.Mental Retardation: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Supports. 10th ed. Washington, DC: AAMR American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). 4th ed. , text rev. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. Atkins v. Commonwealth. (2000). 533 U. S. 976. Retrieved November 9, 2008 at http://caselaw. lp. findlaw.

com/scripts/getcase. pl? court=va&vol=1000395&invol=1. Buck v. Bell (1927). 274 U. S. 200. Retrieved November 9, 2008 at http://www. law. cornell. edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0274_0200_ZO. html. Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc. (1985). 473 U. S. 432. Retrieved November 9, 2008 at http://www. law. umkc. edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/cleburne. html. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). (1997). Public Law 105–17, C. F. R. 300. Youngberg v. Romeo (1927). 457 US 307. Retrieved November 9, 2008 at http://supreme. justia. com/us/457/307/case. html