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Mental Retardation Doesn’t Mean “Stupid”! A Guide for Parents and Teachers

reviewed by Phil Smith - December 13, 2006

coverTitle: Mental Retardation Doesn’t Mean “Stupid”! A Guide for Parents and Teachers
Author(s): Robert Evert Cimera
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1578863538 , Pages: 296, Year: 2006
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Robert Evert Cimera’s text, Mental Retardation Doesn’t Mean “Stupid”! A Guide for Parents and Teachers, draws on his years of experience as a teacher of students described as having severe intellectual disabilities and behavioral challenges. He’s written it, as his subtitle suggests, in language that is accessible for parents and teachers with little knowledge about people with so-called cognitive impairments; he does a terrific job of explaining difficult topics and all the jargon with which special education is infused.

I should point out that the book’s foreword is written by Chris Burke, a man with Down syndrome, who is also an actor (he played Corkie on the television program Life Goes On), musician, editor, and self-advocate. This is a terrific beginning to the text. It opens up a world of possibility for teachers and parents who may feel that the lives of people with developmental disabilities are ones without hope.

Cimera defines the notion of so-called intellectual disabilities in terms that lay people can easily understand, describing in detail the three factors involved in definitions of cognitive impairment in every state: IQ, adaptive behavior, and developmental period. In a few short paragraphs, he notes that the idea of intellectual disability is a human or social construction, and is able to describe what that means in non-technical terms, with clear examples, which is no mean feat by any standard.

He goes on to outline ways in which professionals diagnose so-called cognitive impairments, discusses their causes (differentiating between environmental and genetic factors), and talks about some of the more common conditions that often result in, or co-occur with, intellectual disabilities. Cimera describes typical characteristics of students labeled as having intellectual disabilities, including areas related to motivation, self-regulation, learning, society, and physiology, while at the same time noting that every person, with or without disabilities, is different. The author goes on to describe appropriate teaching strategies for students diagnosed as having intellectual disabilities.

A couple of chapters are addressed specifically to parents. In one, Cimera describes succinctly parental rights under federal special education law. In another, he introduces them to the kinds of supports, living arrangements, and job opportunities available to adults labeled as having intellectual disabilities. While these chapters are useful, I found jumping from one audience to another to be somewhat disconcerting. His final chapter, addressed to both parents and teachers, provides a set of resources that might be useful for each of those groups, including textbooks, support groups and organizations, and email listservs. A short but helpful glossary ends the book.

This could be a useful text for an introductory course in the field of cognitive impairments, at the undergraduate level, or as a supportive text for parents wanting to know more about educating their child diagnosed with intellectual disabilities. However, I would not recommend it as a text for either prospective teachers, or as a supportive text for parents, without a couple of important caveats.

The first issue is Chimera’s use of language. While he strongly urges the use of person-first language (literally putting the person before the disability—“a person with cognitive impairments” instead of “cognitively-impaired person”—to emphasize that the disability is not a person’s identity, that they are a person above all), and reinforces the idea that negative language can be harmful to people described as having intellectual disabilities, he continues to use the term “mental retardation,” in the title and throughout the text. Although the term is still most commonly used by professionals to describe and diagnose people otherwise labeled as having intellectual disabilities in the United States, it is a phrase abjured by people so labeled, who prefer to call themselves self-advocates (Smith, 1999; 2001a; 2001b; 2005). Professional organizations are changing to use terms like intellectual and developmental disabilities (for example, the former American Association on Mental Retardation is changing its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities).

The second issue is Cimera’s discussion of the concept of Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), and the issue of inclusive education. Inclusion is the long-held, widely accepted, best practice that students with disabilities should learn in regular education classrooms, rather than being segregated in separate classrooms or schools (e.g., Baglieri & Knopf, 2004; Giangreco, 2006; Haring, 2002; Stainback & Smith, 2005; Udvari-Solner, Thousand, Villa, Quiocho, & Kelly, 2005). Cimera describes some students (without a label of cognitive impairment, it should be noted) that should not—in his opinion—be educated in regular education settings, as a rationale for why inclusion should not always be considered for students described as having intellectual disabilities; he forms this conclusion in spite of the fact that inclusion is a human and civil right for all students, both ethically and by federal law. In the same vein, he also describes sheltered workshops (segregated work settings) as an appropriate job placement for some adults labeled as having intellectual disabilities. Yet inclusion is an essential element of supports and services for people with so-called cognitive impairments, in both educational and community settings, underpinning critical values of social reciprocity (Aichroth, et al, 2002).

Cimera’s unwillingness to recognize and address the fundamental moral, legal, policy, and best educational practice issues related to inclusion is a significant concern for his text. While he does much to make educational practices for people described as having intellectual disabilities available to parents and educators with little experience in special education, there is still much to be done to place his work in the canon of progressive special education best practice.


Aichroth, S., Carpenter, J., Daniels, K., Grassette, P., Kelly, D., Murray, A., Rice, J., Rivard, B., Smith, C., Smith, P., & Topper, K. (2002). Creating a new system of supports: The Vermont self-determination project. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 21(2), 16-28.

Baglieri, S. & Knopf, J. (2004). Normalizing difference in inclusive teaching. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37, 525-529.

Giangreco, M. (2006). Foundational concepts and practices for educating students with severe disabilities. In M. Snell & F. Brown (Eds.), Instruction of students with severe disabilities (6th ed.) (pp. 1-27). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Haring, N. (2002). Prologue. In R. Villa & J. Thousand (Eds.), Restructuring for caring and effective education: Piecing the puzzle together (2nd ed.) (pp. xvii-xxix). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Smith, P. (1999). Drawing new maps: A radical cartography of developmental disabilities. Review of Educational Research, 69(2), 117-144.

Smith, P. (2001a). Inquiry cantos: A poetics of developmental disability. Mental Retardation, 39, 379-390.

Smith, P. (2001b). MAN.i.f.e.s.t.o.: A Poetics of D(EVIL)op(MENTAL) Dis(ABILITY). Taboo: The Journal of Education and Culture, 5(1), 27-36.

Smith, P. (2005). Off the map: A critical geography of intellectual disabilities. Health and Place,

11, 87-92.

Stainback, S. & Smith, J. (2005). Inclusive education: Historical perspective. In R. Villa & J.Thousand (Eds.), Creating an inclusive school (2nd. ed.) (pp. 12-26). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Udvari-Solner, A., Thousand, J., Villa, R., Quiocho, A., & Kelly, M. (2005). Promising practices that foster inclusive education. In R. Villa & J. Thousand (Eds.), Creating an inclusive school (2nd. ed.) (pp.97-123). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 13, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12890, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 8:41:25 AM

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