On Naming and Developmental Disability Awareness Month

Recently, to open a meeting of ACRL team leaders, I told a joke. Jokes can be fraught, but they can also help us to see things in a new light, to reassess situations that have been taken for granted. This one helps me look at identity and naming:

A grasshopper hops into a bar and the bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you.” And the grasshopper says, “Really, you have a drink named Fred?”

Most of the team winced. I told it again later that day, at an informal meeting of CEOs of the American Council of Learned Societies and received the same reaction.

As we approach the March celebration of Developmental Disability Awareness Month, I took a minute to reflect on my joke in a deeper way.  What I like about this particular joke is that Fred does not readily identify as a grasshopper, which reminds me of an NPR story I heard some 15 years ago. In 2007, the organization that represents those with intellectual and developmental disabilities was renamed the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD).

This is an old society, founded in 1876, the same year as ALA. It began as the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feebleminded Persons and in 1906 was renamed the American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded. Some 17 years later it underwent yet another name change to the American Association on Mental Deficiency and then again in 1987 to the American Association on Mental Retardation. When the AAIDD announced the latest renaming, the director told NPR about an angry call from one of his members. The director asked the man “Well, what do you want to be called?” The man answered, “I want to be known as John.”

There’s a lot here.

The names we ascribe to things, and thus how we understand those things, possess remarkable fluidity over time. Here’s one example. In Rivka Galchen’s review of a recent biography of Maria Montessori, she reminds us that Montessori began her medical school education in Italy in 1893, the sole woman in a cohort of 1,664 students. The seminal moment in Montessori’s life occurs as she labors in a mental asylum in Rome devoted to children. The children there are considered incurable, with problems ranging from muteness to epilepsy to malnutrition. Collectively they are called feeble-minded or idiots; Montessori saw them differently and by doing so, changed many of their lives. (Rivka Galchen, “Every Child an Emperor: On Maria Montessori,” Review of The Child is the Teacher: A Life of Maria Montessori, by Cristina De Stefano, Harper’s, Feb 2022, pp. 73-77.)

Terms such as “feeble minded,” “mental deficiency,” and “mental retardation” have been consigned to the dustbin and the evolution of AAIDD’s renaming reminds us that, as a society, we struggle with understanding and identifying things. For example, one can look at statues and monuments in the same way as name changes, as representations of a certain time, some of which we should question deeply. It also reminds us, as we reach for equity, diversity, and inclusion, that people are unique, that they process information in countless ways and that no one understands this better than library workers. Language is important, and we are careful not to use descriptors such as “handicapped” and we do not refer to “disabled persons,” but rather “persons with disabilities,” underscoring a subtle but important difference between introducing someone as my autistic sister and my sister with autism.

So, as we think of EDI in ACRL, let us be expansive in that definition. While it is essential to focus on increasing the association’s reach in BIPOC communities, we should make sure that we offer our open hands to those with disabilities, those with varying socio-economic status, those with international backgrounds, and so on, as we make our way down the road to diversity. Montessori believed that educational success came from recognizing the inherent value of children. Let us all try to recognize the value in our students and in each other; we will be a much more effective association as a result.

Thank you for your membership!

– Jay Malone, ACRL Executive Director