By: J. David Smith
One of the great teachers I had during my doctoral studies at Teachers College, Columbia University was Professor Ignacy Goldberg. As great teachers often do, Dr. Goldberg engaged his students with stories from his own life. I remember clearly his accounts from early in his career of working in an institution for persons diagnosed as mentally retarded. He recalled that during his first days there an experienced staff member explained to him that there were actually three different populations of people in the institution, the "retarded retarded,” the "normal retarded,” and the "minimally gifted.” The retarded retarded needed constant care. The normal retarded and the minimally gifted often provided this help to them. The normal retarded were the mainstream population of the institution. They lived relatively independent lives within the culture of the institution. They were often given the most basic and unpleasant work to do (cleaning and caring for the retarded retarded). The minimally gifted made certain that things ran smoothly in the wards of the institution. They occupied the upper echelon of the residential society and were rewarded by the institution's staff for doing things the employees were actually paid to do. Their rewards included cigarettes, money, privileges and other favors. The quality of institutional life often depended on the abilities, sensibilities, and compassion of the minimally gifted. Dr. Goldberg discussed the degrading nature of the terms used to describe the institution's residents, particularly the sarcastic designation "minimally gifted.” The concept underlying the terms, however, he found to be valid. There were distinctly different groups of people in the institution, yet all of them were referred to as being the retarded. He used his story to question the monolith that mental retardation had become in the thinking of the public and in many professional circles.