What’s in a website name?

21 January 2014 Chris Goodey writes:

We had trouble coming up with a title for this site. The phrase “learning disability” needs justifying. The problem started out as merely tactical. In the plethora of names (fifty and upwards even within the last century), the English-speaking countries cannot agree on one, nor is there agreement even within each of them. We were looking for a generic term, but the very possibility of one is problematic. Which label would most likely alert those people who might need the site?

The problem with “learning disability” is that in North America and Australia it refers to specific problems such as dyslexia and attention deficit. In the UK, by contrast, learning disability is the generic term that replaced “mental handicap” or “mental retardation.” “Intellectual disability” is quite often used in UK academic circles, but most practitioners go through their entire careers never using it, while most families and people with disabilities have never even heard of it. On the other hand, “intellectual” disability is used more extensively in North America; in services, the common term is “developmental disability,” but this too does not overlap neatly with learning disability in the UK sense, where its use tends to be restricted to clinicians.

In the end, as the title of our site shows, we hedged our bets, Personally, I have beef with intellectual disability in particular because it has implications which are dangerous to all of us. It suggests that abilities of the intellect are encapsulated by cognitive psychology, which also underwrites the meritocratic, exam-passing “abilities” of the professions in general: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/social_mobility_education_and_intelligence_the_emperors_old_underpants  Intellectual disability, then, is just a lack of what cognitive psychologists congratulate themselves as having. Their own specific expertise comes to sum up the totality of human ability (apart from physical prowess), and this principle is then dictated to medicine, education and all the other social institutions. “Cognitive disability,” now also common, is perhaps better for historical researchers to use because it lets that cat out of the bag; it also nails the concept more firmly to a particular period in history (our own).

It could be said that no label is a good label, by definition – though in the real world it would be unwise to discard it if you were looking for support. But the very choice of this label in particular – “intellectual” disability – is in itself an abuse of the powerless by the powerful. Psychological knowledge defined by abilities in cognitive processing, abstraction, logical reasoning etc. is a cuckoo in the nest of our perceptions about each other and our common humanity. It shuts out airy-fairy stuff such as a grasp of morals, say, or beauty. The one and only, truly scientific and objective psychological ability is what the professional possesses (supremely) in him or herself and observes (to lesser degrees) in other people.

Without the necessary invention of a special population entirely lacking “intellectual” ability, their idea of the essence of what it is to be human would reveal itself as completely circular and solipsistic. With that invention, you can make what is in fact a jumble of your own prejudices the definition of the intellect. Where does that leave people who are judged to be without it?

22. January 2014 by chris
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