January 11th is the 21st anniversary of my beloved younger brother Paul’s suicide. He had a learning disability called “mental retardation” in an unenlightened era that treated those so stigmatized as inferior. They were expected to be warehoused in an institution or kept away from the rest of us so as not to discomfort. He suffered deeply from that stigma all his life but couldn’t escape it.
To be honest, I didn’t understand his learning disability until after he died. He had a wonderful wry wit, was a brilliant Scrabble player, had an extraordinary mathematical memory, read the NY Times & intelligently discussed the news. Abuse of other human beings infuriated him. But he couldn’t get a decent job & was always treated like a dolt. The stigma of retardation doesn’t recognize emotional depth or complexity & subtlety in human intelligence & just writes off those with learning problems as stupid slugs. That’s why he was also profoundly sad & lonely & would act shy & taciturn so others wouldn’t spot his humiliating ‘condition’. But the condition was never his; it was social hatred for those with stigmatized limitations.
After working with the Self Advocacy Movement of those with learning disabilities, I’ve come to understand “mental retardation” as a social construct, a deeply discriminatory, malignant construct that isolates & stigmatizes people & which humane societies will have no part of. I can’t bring him back to tell him his suicide taught me to understand what he knew so well. But I can keep my commitment to object when people use the “R-word” or any of its derivatives like “libtard” as an epithet or when they refer to adults with learning disabilities as toddlers in adult bodies. I can honor him by using the anniversary of his death to object to the stigma & barriers put up against full participation in social life for those with disabilities.
May he Rest In Peace. I still miss that sweet, sensitive, very kind & very witty man.