How Everyone Became Depressed

The rise and fall of the nervous breakdown

Children With Special Needs and Hate-filled Neighbors

This is a community problem, not a personal problem.

It’s happening here now. A Daily Mail story about a mother in Toronto with a special-needs child who received a hate-filled letter from a neighbor. The Canadians were appalled and the mother received an outpouring of support.

Now in a southeastern US state another family with an autistic child found a similar note pinned to their door. “I also live in this neighborhood and have a problem!!!” Note the three exclamation marks. Virtually every sentence in the letter contains these exclamation marks, the hallmark of the illiterate. “You have a kid that is mentally handicapped and you consciously decided that it would be a good idea to live in a close proximity neighborhood like this???”

The three question marks are also a trademark of those unable to express themselves.

What good is such a child? asks the correspondent. “Personally, they should take whatever non retarded body parts he possesses and donate it [sic] to science. What the hell else good is he to anyone!!!”

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The bottom line, after more raving, “Do everyone in our community a favor huge and MOVE!!! VAMOSE [sic]!!!” SCRAM!!!”

And then, the Nazi bottom line: “Do the right thing and move or euthanize him!!!”

I recommended to the physician who conveyed this letter to me that the police be called to deal with an obvious hate crime. The family believe they can “protect themselves,” and probably won’t call the cops.

Fair enough.

That’s their business. But discouraging these scum from ranting further, demoralizing parents and shaming these guiltless children, is everyone’s business. The hate-filled underclass is a community problem, not a personal problem. And we are not helpless.

This kind of hate reminds me of the old days when “mental retardation” or even before then, “degenerate idiocy,” was the main diagnosis. Physicians actively encouraged parents to place their special children in institutions rather than raising them at home, where their presence might harm the development of the other “normal” children. The care of the “retarded” in those days was in the hands of psychiatrists rather than pediatricians, who were not bashful about demonstrating that they knew zip-all about child development. (But if your child needed Freudian psychoananalysis, hey, you’ve come to the right address!)

Those days are gone. Why? The Kennedy family comes in for such a beating that many do not know that the Kennedys took the lead in turning the page on societal attitudes towards children with MR. Specifically, around 1970 they founded Special Olympics, which today is huge.

It wasn’t just all the Kennedys together who did this. Several of the family rolled their eyes in impatience. It was the work of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the President’s sister, and her husband Sargent Shriver, who took the lead in browbeating Senator Ted until he pushed legislation through Congress giving new support to those with developmental disabilities. (Eunice was furious when she saw her beloved MR cause disappearing into the Developmental Disabilities soup.)

The Kennedys made a big difference here. And I told the story in a book I had great difficulty finding a publisher for because it contained the term “mental retardation” in the title. (Edward Shorter, The Kennedy Family and the Story of Mental Retardation, Temple University Press, 2000). Eunice and Sarge have passed on now.

But if only in their memory, the police in this town in this southeastern state should find “One pissed off mother” who wrote this evil document and show her the stern face of American justice.

Edward Shorter, Ph.D., is the Jason A. Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

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