When Caring Is Just and Justice Is Caring: Justice and Mental Retardation
Among the various human forms alluded to in the Hebrew prayer, mental retardation appears to be one of the most difficult to celebrate.1 It is the disability that other disabled persons do not want attributed to them. It is the disability for which prospective parents are most likely to use selective abortion (Wertz 2000). And it is the disability that prompted one of the most illustrious United States Supreme Court Justices to endorse forced sterilization, because “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”2 The mentally retarded have at times been objects of pity, compassion, or abuse by their caretakers and society at large. But they have rarely been seen as subjects, as citizens, as persons with equal entitlement to fulfillment.
Mental retardation comes to the public’s attention in sensational stories that expose appalling forms of abuse. We encountered the horror decades ago in Look magazine’s photo exposé “Christmas in Purgatory” and, more recently, in the heavily illustrated article in the New York Times Magazine showing conditions at Hidalgo in Guadalajara, Mexico, one of many “Global Willowbrooks” ( Winerip 2000); or closer to home, in the Washington Post’s coverage of the unexplained and uninvestigated deaths of mentally retarded people living in the city-funded group homes of the nation’s capital ( Vobejda 2000). And we gasp at the inhumanity of those entrusted with the care of extremely vulnerable people.
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For my daughter, dependence of the most profound sort will be part of her normal existence. But such dependence does not preclude a certain form of mutual dependence. I depend on her as well. Sesha and her well-being are essential to my own. Her smile chases away the trivial distractions of the day. Her embrace grounds me in what is important and precious. Watching her grow and develop skills and take pride in her accomplishments nurtures me as much as my own work. In another place I’ve written: “It’s perhaps self-delusional to say that I am as dependent on her as she is on me, but perhaps not. Others could take care of her and even love her—in fact, I must think that she will continue to thrive with or without me. But without her, I would wither” ( Kittay 2000b). Writing that passage, acknowledging that I was even more dependent on her than she on me was itself a moment of discovery.
Although my daughter can never be “productive” or pay back to society anything of material value, still her contributions are great. Her sweetness radiates and enriches the lives of everyone she touches, those who allow themselves to be
- A word about the term mental retardation. In speaking of mental retardation, some speak of mental disabilities, or cognitive or intellectual disabilities, or developmental disabilities, or being mentally challenged. I reject the last term as condescending. Although only mental retardation captures precisely the population I address, I vary the terms with a sensitivity to their over- or underinclusiveness.
- With this remark, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes justified upholding the state’s right to determine that Carrie Bell, a “feeble-minded woman” residing in a state institution, should be sterilized (Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 208 ).