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Betsy McCaughey
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The Real Message of the Special Olympians

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Good news. The R-word — for retarded — is being relegated to the trashcan, just like the N-word. A new national poll shows that nearly 9 in 10 people consider "retard" as a boorish, cruel word that simply should not be used. The medical establishment agrees. The newest edition of the handbook of mental disorders replaces "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability."

Part of the credit for this increasing civility and acceptance goes to the Kennedy clan and their cause, the Special Olympics. Anyone who has attended a Special Olympics comes away moved by the dignity and perseverance of these athletes. You'll get your chance this week to watch the World Summer Games, which launched Saturday in Los Angeles. This is the largest event of its kind, with 7,000 athletes from 177 countries (even our new best ally Iran) competing in Olympic-style events including cycling, aquatics and weight lifting. The Special Olympics was started by Eunice Kennedy Shriver who was saddened that her own disabled sister Rose had been shut away for life beginning at age 23.

In 1963, Rose's brother, President John F. Kennedy called for a new approach, moving the mentally ill and intellectually disabled out of state hospitals into small group homes and their local communities. Though well-intentioned, it was an impractical idea for dealing with the severely mentally ill. Many released from state hospitals now languish in jail cells, instead.

But deinstitutionalization has been a huge success for the intellectually disabled. Since Kennedy's time, there has been a 98 percent drop in children in state institutions. Now the intellectually disabled can live in more normal circumstances and acquire a measure of independence, instead of being warehoused behind locked doors.

Even so, it's still a mixed picture for them and their families. Breaking into the workplace isn't easy. Only 34 percent of the intellectually disabled work, mostly in what are called "sheltered workshops" that pay below minimum wage and still keep them apart from other employees. Advocates are pressuring state lawmakers to end these government-subsidized workshops and require employers to pay at least minimum wage.

But that's a two-edged sword. The more regulations and costs imposed on employers, the less likely they are to hire the disabled.

Looming ahead is the problem of who will take care of the intellectually disabled — including those with Down syndrome, autism and low IQs — when their parents or other caregivers die. Some 730,000 people with ID depend on a caregiver over age 60.

Considering these challenges, which can outlast a parent's own life, 67 percent of American women who find themselves pregnant with a Down syndrome baby abort. It is even higher — a staggering 92 percent — in Europe. Behind these statistics are the emotionally wrenching decisions of prospective parents who cannot imagine taking on this lifetime task.

In the U.S., routine screening for Down syndrome began about a decade ago, and the resulting abortions have caused the U.S. population with Down syndrome to plummet 30 percent since then. For parents who didn't make the decision to abort and are dealing with the daily challenges and triumphs of the condition, watching the Special Olympics will be especially joyful. The Games show what's possible, and the courage and determination innate to all humans, regardless of their IQ.

Pay attention, Ezekiel Emanuel (a chief architect of Obamacare). Emanuel argued that organ transplants and other scarce resources should go to those patients who can contribute to society, not to infants, the elderly and the mentally disabled — patients who are "irreversibly prevented" from participating fully in society. Fortunately, 87 percent of Americans disagree with that cold calculation, according to the new national poll, and want the intellectually disabled to have access to organ transplants.

It's a sign that Americans are becoming ready to embrace the humanity of the intellectually disabled. One reason for that generosity of spirit will be evident when you tune into the Special Olympics. The games are doing a lot to remove the stigma from intellectual disability, though the race is far from won.

Betsy McCaughey is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and author of "Government by Choice: Inventing the United States Constitution." To find out more about Betsy McCaughey and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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