“The idiot is that very ‘other.’ […] a body made for blows and lowly tasks, a body long since dispersed, to be derided and not in need of being defended, no longer having anything to defend. […] already he is ‘waste.’” (Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable, Volume One: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1982).
As Western medicine’s vocabulary around “idiocy” continues to shift, we witness an emergence of clinical terms ranging from “feeblemindedness,” “retardation,” and “developmental delay,” to the internationally recognized, now current referent “intellectual disability.” Suffused with notions of backwardness and corrupted development, these labels are at once pseudo-scientific and imprecise, shrouded in the same obscurity that defines the marginalized and invisible lives they seek to identify. A lot of readers may feel that we are heading towards more inclusive times, an era of deinstitutionalization where people with intellectual disabilities are no longer prevented from living freely in the broader community. As always however, the risk of such misconceptions is immense. To realistically assess the truthfulness of any claims to positive change for people with intellectual disabilities, lets ask ourselves some questions:
When was the last time you met someone with an intellectual disability? What do you know about the T-4 program and the Holocaust of the Handicapped? How about the forced sterilization campaigns in California and Alberta? Or the continued confinement of people with intellectual disabilities in large institutions both in the Global North and Global South? It is unlikely that we are well versed in these issues, and it is just as unlikely that we have the benefit of a personal relationship with a person with an intellectual disability that would allow us to get up to speed. Despite whatever developments have taken place in recent years, the truth remains that people with intellectual disabilities are forced to exist on the uttermost margins of our society.