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Issues in the Field of Mental Retardation Essay

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Updated: Sep 22nd, 2021

Mental retardation (MR) is a controversial concept which involves people with mental disabilities, development delays, and learning difficulties. The view of the mentally retarded as a surplus population has various consequences for developing an adequate understanding of problems pertaining to mental retardation and, therefore, for instituting remediation programs. Insofar as mental retardation operates to limit the life chances of persons, it must be regarded as a member of a class of life-chance-inhibitors.

The interdisciplinary approach could help to study the problem of mental retardation and allow scientists to develop an adequate and clear definition of mentally retarded persons. The main disciplines which study mental retardation involve physiology and psychology, education, and social services. Education and social services describe and study mental retardation as a social phenomenon, its prevalence, its nonrandom distribution, and its cultural aspects. Also, they relate it to other social characteristics in affecting the participation of retardates in social institutions. Social services deal with social movements, the family, residential institutions, and the community (Mcentee and Saunders, 2004). The remediation implicit in the discussion is that, in order to be effective, amelioration techniques must deal simultaneously with many phenomena in the life-chance-inhibitor category, not with each inhibitor separately (Drew and Hardman, 2006).

The crucial defining feature of mental retardation is low intelligence in comparison with some general reference groups. In this case, physiology and psychology help to examine and identify psychical and psychological deviations and find possible solutions to these problems. Educators and social workers study the correlation between psychological deviations and intelligence. By “intelligence” or formal cognition, we mean such processes as ability in short-term memory, abstracting ability, reasoning, speed of visual information processing, as well as other variables that have been of interest to cognitive psychologists. These motivational personality variables have a major role in the developmental approach to mental retardation. Whenever differences in performance are found between retarded and non-retarded groups of individuals matched on MA, the theorists typically look for differences in motivation between the two groups (Keigher, 2000).

The rationale for disciplinary collaboration is that “mental retardation” is a complex problem caused by multiple factors and circumstances. For instance, education and social sciences are limited to those individuals with no evidence of organic brain damage. Those persons with known central nervous system dysfunction, either due to genetic or environmental causes, indeed, can be seen as possessing a “defect.” “Along with the trend toward providing proper treatment to individuals with mental retardation and mental illness, there are additional indicators of a growing awareness of dual diagnosis” (Vanderschie-Bezyak 2003, p. 53). In such studies involving retarded groups with heterogeneous diagnoses, it is difficult to determine if any results obtained reflect intellectual slowness per se or the effects of organic brain damage that might be found at any level of intelligence. The best way to improve cooperation between the disciplines is to create a project, and research teams consisted of professionals from different disciplines and research areas. Following Vanderschie-Bezyak (2003): regular team meetings allow these professionals to share information, perspectives, and expertise. It is not necessary that each professional is an expert in mental retardation, but due to the uncertainty and complexity of dual diagnoses, the different perspectives of people from various disciplines is essential”.

Different disciplines develop different terminology and classifications to describe and define the state of mental retardation. In a scientific context, researchers use the term “developmental delay.” The main disadvantage of this term is that it describes MR as a current (temporal) state. Another term, ‘developmental disability,’ is used by physicians and psychologists. This controversy of terminology is of importance because at least 75% of all those identified as retarded have no evidence of organic brain dysfunction. Retarded persons with no evidence of organic brain dysfunction are referred to by the American Association on ‘mental deficiency’ as suffering from “retardation due to psychosocial disadvantage. Educators and social workers use the term ‘intellectual disability’ to describe a person with learning and mental difficulties. The disadvantage of this term is that it describes only learning disabilities and difficulties but does not reflect psychological problems and dysfunctions (Raif and Rimmerman, 2001; Mcentee and Saunders, 2004).

The term ‘retardation’ is the best one because it involves a combination of environmental (cultural) and genetic (familial) causes. Also, “people with mental retardation or developmental disabilities are defined by legislation to include those with disabling conditions acquired before age 22 that cause lifelong and substantial impairment” (Keigher, 2000, p. 153). According to this definition, the retarded person is viewed as a normal individual in the sense that he falls within the normal distribution of intelligence dictated by the gene pool. He or she is normal in exactly the same sense that a person who is in the lower third percentile of height is considered to be normal. This person will be called “short” but will not be seen as being abnormal. As a consequence, view of a retarded person as a normal individual predicts that the performance of this retarded person and a non-retarded person of equivalent developmental level (most typically defined by mental age [MA] on an IQ test) on a cognitive task should be exactly the same (Drew and Hardman, 2006).

Interaction between cultural diversity and linguistic differences creates some problems for research and study of mental retardation and its treatment methods. The level of functioning is a result of the interaction between genetic, somatic, social, and cultural factors. There is no implication intended regarding the potential intellectual attainment if the environment were changed. Undoubtedly, a change in the social and cultural environment or the introduction of appropriate physiological treatment would increase the intellectual functioning of all human beings. Taking into account cultural diversity and linguistic differences, it is possible to say that the behavior pattern developed may differ in ontogenesis from that of an individual of average intelligence, who, by some environmental circumstance, also experiences an inordinate amount of failure. By the same token, if the retarded person could be guaranteed a more typical history of success, researchers would expect his behavior to resemble more nearly that of the intellectually average individual, independent of intellectual level (Drew and Hardman 2006). Within this framework, researchers discuss the personality factors that have been found to influence the performance of the retarded. Different cultures stipulate different norms of behavior and social interaction, and for this reason, it is impossible to determine a universal characteristic of a retarded person. Cultural patterns and traditions are reflected in linguistic differences and social interaction stimulated by historical traditions and social values of a particular society. To overcome these problems, researchers should take into account cultural differences and features, social development of the society and its norms, level of education, and linguistic peculiarities. In some instances, personality characteristics will reflect environmental factors that have little or nothing to do with an intellectual endowment. In the face of such complexity, researchers need not assert that each retarded child is so unique that it is impossible for us to isolate those factors that may influence the retarded child’s level of functioning. This does not mean that researchers can ignore the importance of lower intelligence per se because personality traits and behavior patterns do not develop in a vacuum. At present, however, all that can be done is to regard the level of intelligence as the result of the complex interaction of a set of genetic, physiological, and social-cultural variables and to focus on the consequences for society.


  1. Drew, C.J., Hardman, M.L. (2006). Intellectual Disabilities Across the Lifespan. Prentice Hall; 9 edition.
  2. Keigher, S.M. (2000). Emerging Issues in Mental Retardation: Self-Determination versus Self-Interest. Health and Social Work, 25 (3), 163.
  3. Mcentee, J.E., Saunders, R.R. (2004). Increasing the Probability of Stimulus Equivalence with Adults with Mild Mental Retardation. The Psychological Record, 54 (3), 423-425.
  4. Raif, R., Rimmerman, A. (2001). Involvement with and Role Perception toward an Adult Sibling with and without Mental Retardation. The Journal of Rehabilitation, 67 (2), 10.
  5. Vanderschie-Bezyak, J.L., (2003). Service Problems and Solutions for Individuals with Mental Retardation and Metal Illness. The Journal of Rehabilitation, 69 (1), 53.
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