If God loves the mentally retarded, we should, too.

The mentally retarded are perhaps the most isolated, impoverished, and underprivileged members of our society. Failing to conform to vague cultural standards of intelligence, self-sufficiency, and physical attractiveness, they have been excluded from many services and protections available to others. Their weaknesses and pathologies have been stressed and their strengths and assets denied.

As the rights of the retarded are slowly gaining recognition, this situation is changing. Christians have a special ethical responsibility to these individuals who have suffered so ignominiously in our society. The challenge before us is to make the God-given personality and dignity of the retarded a reality in our society. We must accept the retarded person as an integral member of our community, fight for his rights as we would for our own, and use all our resources to make the environment suitable to his needs.

Good ethics depend on good data. We need to be informed about retardation, its nature, causes, and effect on the families involved. Mental retardation means an inadequately developed intelligence that significantly impairs a person’s ability to learn and adapt to the norms of society. It affects about 3 per cent of the U.S. population; about 126,000 babies born each year are diagnosed as retarded. Because it is a relative concept, measuring mental retardation cannot be absolute or completely accurate. Diagnosis is made by using tests involving I.Q. level and social adaptation. On this basis mental retardation is divided into four categories: profound, severe, moderate, and mild.

Profound retardation means that the I.Q. is less than twenty. Constant care or supervision is needed or the person to survive: the individual is also often physically handicapped. Severe retardation produces an I.Q. between twenty and thirty-five. Motor, speech, and language skills are retarded; often, but not always, the individual is physically handicapped. Custodial care is necessary. About one child in one thousand is born with this type of retardation. Moderate retardation means the I.Q. is thirty-five to fifty. This individual, with proper training, can develop self-protective and self-supporting skills. About three children in one thousand are born in this category. With mild retardation, I.Q. fifty to seventy, children are indistinguishable from other normal children until school age, when they are unable to learn general subjects. With proper training these individuals can be assimilated into society.

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There are many complex causes of mental retardation. Frequently, the causes are unknown, though some genetic and environmental factors have been established. Infection, such as Rubella (German Measles) contracted by the mother during the first trimester of pregnancy, or certain diseases contracted in infancy and childhood may cause retardation. Poisoning, a toxic substance taken by the mother during pregnancy (some medication harmful to the fetus) or by the child during early years (lead poisoning), is another. Injury to the child during birth, or physical abuse, or an automobile accident, especially when the child is not protected by a safety seat, can cause brain damage and retardation of varying degrees. Such metabolic disorders as phenylketonuria, PKU, or galactosemia and genetic disorders producing Down’s syndrome, mongolism, are other factors. Some mild retardation is caused by lack of good prenatal and postnatal care, lack of motivation and opportunities for learning, and poor childhood nutrition and health care.

Anyone can have a retarded child. For most if not all parents, having a retarded child is a very painful experience. The suffering is akin to grief; the parents mourn the loss of their dream or hope of having a normal child. The typical responses to grief are present, including feelings of depresson, guilt, failure, anger, and self-rejection.

We must relate our knowledge about retardation to our values, which often take the form of two conflicting types of moral reasoning: utilitarianism or the equal value view of life.

Utilitarianism can be summed up as the greatest good for the greatest number of people, which assumes that only life of a certain quality has worth. Thus, there is a tendency to define personality on the basis of utility: unless a person is useful, he is not worth much. Since the mentally retarded person has a limited capacity to learn he is subjected to a barrage of indignities, loss of human rights, and even removal from society. Given the utilitarian ethic rampant in our society, it is not surprising that inhuman treatment of our least useful members occurs.

For example, a few years ago retarded residents of Willowbrook were secretly injected with potentially lethal hepatitis virus as part of a medical experiment.

In contrast, the equal value view of life affirms that all individuals, regardless of their usefulness, have an equal claim to dignity. Different people may have different levels of utility, but utility must never define personhood or the right to life, liberty, and good in the world. The physically ill, mentally ill or retarded, racial minorities, and the elderly all deserve equal treatment regardless of their power base in society. Justice demands an equal consideration of each person’s claim, despite his I.Q.

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It is easy to adapt a utilitarian philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number. Christians must fight against that. Personhood is a gift from God, who made each of us in his image. Each of us matters, in good health or bad. People are not on trial; their right to life is not in question.

Western ethics is largely based on the Judeo-Christian tradition, which, at its heart, declares that man is made in the image of God. This concept of the inestimable value of the individual enhances personal meaning, interpersonal relationships, and human community. Christianity further teaches that God’s sacrificial love, manifested through the self-giving life, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ, reaffirms the uniqueness and ultimate worth of each person. In other words, everybody is somebody.

The Christian should view all individuals as people who deserve the utmost respect and concern. The mentally retarded person is not a “retardate,” but a person whose particular problem is in mental functioning. The rest of us have problems in other areas. An ability to see in each other the shared human qualities that go deeper than our differences is the basic ingredient in forming any relationship between a retarded person and ourselves. To be true to his ethical perspective, the Christian must continually place himself in the position of a retarded person, feeling what he feels and then treating him as he wants to be treated. If certain services are unsuitable for him or his family, then they are unsuitable for anyone else.

Thus the powerful people in society must share their power base with those who have none, making advantages for even the most disadvantaged. Likewise, the Christian, who knows his value in God’s sight, should reach out to those who do not know and who have been rejected by their fellow men. This is exactly what Christ has done for us.

When we put our ethics into action, we will act openly and sensitively to those less fortunate than ourselves. Christians can become involved with the mentally retarded in several different ways.

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1. Join the local Association for Retarded Citizens. This is an excellent way to become familiar with the needs of the retarded and help the community serve them.

2. Volunteer at an institution for the retarded or a home-help program that supports families of retarded individuals.

3. Join an advocacy program. Become a big brother or sister to a retarded child, or work with a retarded person as a legal guardian, adopted parent, or conservator of property. The Association for Retarded Citizens offers training and back-up services for citizen advocates.

4. Educate yourself and your friends through films, books, and seminars. The Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation has worked extensively on the rights of the retarded and has produced two very effective films: “Who Should Survive?” and “Bertha.” Sponsor a community workshop on the needs and opportunities for the retarded.

When a family with a retarded member is part of its congregation, the church has a special responsibility to manifest God’s love and concern. Since the pastor may have to counsel the family, he must be informed about mental retardation and about referral resources, and he must be sensitive to the very real needs of the family. He should work through his own feelings about mental retardation and be prepared to face the issues openly.

The congregation also should be aware of the special needs of the handicapped person and of his or her family. A result of this awareness might be to arrange care for the child so that the parents can have some free time; another might be to sponsor a day camp for retarded youngsters.

A way to introduce the needs of the retarded is to include special education classes as part of a Sunday School curriculum. David C. Cooke, Concordia, and other Christian publishers have material especially designed for teaching those with limited abilities (adults as well as children). Such classes could provide significant outreach into the community where there may be lonely retarded people looking for a place to belong. Personal involvement between members of the congregation and retarded persons can often do more to break down prejudicial stereotypes and fears than all the sermons on the rights of the retarded.

D. Bruce Lockerbie is chairman of the Fine Arts department at The Stony Brook School, Stony Brook, New York. This article is taken from his 1976 lectures on Christian Life and Thought, delivered at Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado.

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