Have you ever heard the phrase “that person has the mind of a five year old In an adult body?” It is something many adults with intellectual disabilities, like me, have to deal with. For years, medical professionals have told parents of newly diagnosed Intellectually disabled people that they would mentally be children for their entire lives. Even through I am a 28-year-old, pregnant, married adult, as well as a faculty member at University of Washington, people still tell me that I think like a child. These words are not just offensive language. They can also take away our rights to normal adult lives. Historically, so-called “mental age theory” has stripped people with intellectual and developmental disabilities of our dignity, our reproductive freedom and our parental rights. Age theory has also been used to strip us of the rights to make adult choices, such as buying alcohol and tobacco or having sexual relationships.
“Mental age theory” was a major feature of the eugenics movement. In many ways, it was also the forerunner of modern-day functioning labels. At the turn of the 20th century, intellectual disability was called “feeblemindedness” and was separated into categories: A moron was somebody who had the mental age of a 9-12 years old, an imbecile was someone with the mental age of a 6-8 year old, and an idiot was some with the mental age or a 2-5 year old. In Buck v. Bell, a case that legalized forced sterilization of disabled adults, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, “three generations of imbeciles is enough” as justification for forced sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities. It was also used to deny us of our freedom and force us to live in institutions.
I work for the University of Washington’s LEND, which is leadership interdisciplinary training for medical professionals. Sometimes medical professionals I work with forget history. I sometimes have to remind them that it is very harmful to use mental age theory when speaking with new parents. Mental age theory discourages parents from teaching their disabled offspring their rights to independence and autonomy.
A lot of my friends with intellectual disabilities have been mislead by mental age theory. They feel they will never gain independence or get married because they have been told they are children and treated like children for their entire lives. This is why I advocate for people to not use mental age theory at all. We need to tell media they shouldn’t use it to describe disabled adults who are lost or wandering. We need to educate medical professionals that there are better and more respectful way to explain the needs of people with Intellectual/developmental disabilities. Difficulty doing specific tasks isn’t the same thing as being an actual child.
We also need to stop thinking that just because a person likes things that are considered childish, that person is still an adult with the same needs and desires as other adults. I love my little wookies, but I am still an adult. I know many adults without disabilities that enjoy child-like things like cartoons or toys. People with Intellectual and developmental disabilities are treated differently for liking the same things. It’s funny when I meet with non disabled people and they geek out over my little plushy wookies I carry as comfort items. It shows me that adults can enjoy things that children enjoy without people assuming that they are mental children. Please consider this when you hear phrases like “the mind of a five year old” used to talk about adults. Educate people that it is not accurate or appropriate to refer someone with intellectual and developmental disabilities as mentally younger then they are! I not mentally 12. I am mentally 28. I just have an intellectual disability.