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Lower the Barriers for the Mentally Retarded

May 26, 1986|TOM TEREZ | Tom Terez is managing editor of Ways, a new national magazine on mental disability published in Evanston, Ill.

The scene is a downtown sidewalk. It is noon, and the streets are bustling with liberated workers. You are in the midst of this, with a lunchtime errand like everyone else, trying to make your way toward a department store. You are in a wheelchair. At the entrance to the store are two heavy glass doors that seem to say physically disabled people not allowed.

The second scene is an employment office in a nearby building. A mildly retarded young man is filling out an application for after-hours cleaning work. His handwriting is twisted, his speech is slightly labored. By society's standards, these traits won't work in this office. The young man is sent on his way.

Clearly, we can picture the first scene more easily. For many, the image is sharpened by an American vocabulary that now includes "wheelchair athletics," "handicapped parking" and "Jerry's kids." For others, it's made even more real by memories of six or so weeks with crutches. There's also the simple fact that a wheelchair can be touched, that a set of solid doors can be seen --that these barriers are so plainly physical.

Picturing the second scene is more difficult. Yet the mentally disabled person also faces a world of barriers, routinely confronting misconceptions, stigmas and archaic attitudes. These are intangible barriers--they lack the concrete form that lends itself to easy understanding. They seem to be insurmountable, though, especially in a society of would-be superachievers.

Since these barriers take a different shape, so does the task of battering them down. If a bus system does not accommodate wheelchairs, laws are passed and lifts are installed. But if an employer believes that "a retard is a retard," what can any legislature do? Of course, we can't legislate understanding and an open mind. But they are essential if mentally disabled people are to reach the better life that lies beyond the intangible barriers. Given a voice to set the record straight, our nation's 6.5 million mentally retarded people would refute the myths that have misrepresented their condition throughout history. They are not "possessed souls." They are the living results of medically explainable problems: a chromosomal glitch, an enzyme deficiency, a complication during birth. And in the great majority of cases they are not predestined to lead lives void of love, work, companionship and self-esteem.

When the barriers are down, most mentally retarded people will move on to quality lives. Those with mild retardation--about 85% of all mentally retarded people--will have jobs and homes, spouses and children. Moderately retarded people will have problems with walking, talking, learning and other basic skills of daily living. But many will put in productive hours at workshops and simple jobs, and enjoy outings with family members or fellow group-home residents. For people with severe and profound forms of retardation, their own bodies will be the greatest barriers of all. They will require one-on-one care and regular doses of compassion.

The challenge for most of us--for people born with chromosomes, enzymes and everything else in comparatively perfect working order--is to imagine. Think about the wheelchair, of course. But also think about having a voice that can't be clearly understood, facial muscles that don't meet society's standard of acceptability, feelings that are discounted and abused. Think about trying to make a life despite this in a land that smiles on perfection. Then you will be on the way to understanding the barriers that mentally retarded people encounter every day.

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