Friday, January 29, 2016

What New York Magazine got wrong about intellectual disability

By Louise Kinross

A fascinating piece came out in New York Magazine earlier this week called How Smart Do You Have To Be To Raise A Child?

It raises excellent questions about the rights of disabled parents, including those with intellectual disabilities, to care for their kids—noting that 37 American states make a disability reason enough to terminate those rights.

However, one statement in the piece never should have made its way past a fact-checker.

In talking about whether intellectually disabled women can raise their children, the author writes: “one of the signs of intellectual disability is a limited capacity for empathy.”

WHOA Nellie!


Where on earth did that come from?

As someone who has a child with an intellectual disability, works at a hospital for children with disabilities and has been writing (and reading) in the field of parenting and disability for years, this struck me as false. Outrageously simplistic. And dangerous.

Lack of empathy is not a marker for intellectual disability.

But just to be sure I wasn’t confused myself, I reached out to a number of experts.

First I e-mailed Dick J. Sobsey, associate director of the JP Das Centre on Developmental and Learning Disabilities at the University of Alberta.

“A lack of empathy is NOT a general characteristic of intellectual disability and certainly not for someone with a mild intellectual disability,” Dick wrote. “Mothers’ ability to attach to their child and respond to their needs is affected by their own experience as children.

“Sadly, children with intellectual disabilities are much more likely to have grown up in institutional care or to have been abused and neglected. Institutional care, abuse and neglect are risk factors for difficulties with empathy—in women with and without intellectual disabilities.

There is no reason to believe that an individual cannot be a satisfactory parent simply because of an intellectual disability.”

I then e-mailed Dr. Brian Skotko, co-director of the Down syndrome program at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston. “People with intellectual disabilities do have the capacity, to varying degrees, to be empathetic,” he wrote. “To assume otherwise would be presumptive. If someone has a lack of empathy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have an intellectual disability. And if someone has an intellectual disability, it does not necessarily mean that they have a lack of empathy!” (that's his exclamation point)

Finally, I messaged Dan Habib, filmmaker in residence at the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability. Dan is a member of the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

“I agree with your critique,” he responded. “This is one of the more widely accepted definitions of intellectual disability. Nothing here implies lack of empathy.

Dan is currently producing a documentary, out in 2017, called Intelligent Lives, about how the segregation of people with intellectual disabilities became the norm, and why it's slowly being dismantled. 

So please, New York Magazine, when writing about one of the most marginalized populations on the planetplease get your facts straight.

Photo above from New York Magazine. 


Whoa Nelly is right. So many myths about people with differences that are so casually thrown around as truths. Stereotyping a whole diverse group of people is an easy way to dehumanize people. Good catch, Louise. I hope the New Yorker has a response - did you write to them directly?

Hi Sue -- It's New York magazine, not the New Yorker. I tweeted the story to them and await a response.

I love this article Louise, and it reminded me of a conversation that was recorded for StoryCorp that I listened to the other day.

"Bonnie Brown came to StoryCorps with her teenage daughter, Myra.

Bonnie is intellectually disabled with a low IQ. For the past 18 years she’s worked at the same Wendy’s.

Here, her daughter asks her about being a mom.

Myra is enrolled in gifted and talented classes at her high school. She hopes to attend Cambridge University when she graduates."

Wow Karen! Haven't listened to that one and will. Thanks for sharing!


I run a site on disability issues and find this article excellent.

Wondering if it might be possible to republish this article and possibly any others from your blog RSS feed?

I think this comment will give you my email and website details but if not the site is at:


I find the lack of empathy note particularly ironic because my daughter's genetic syndrome, which involves intellectual disabilities, is characterized, in part, by high levels of empathy.

In fact isn't it the people making these claims that lack empathy! Great catch, Louise.

Where on earth did they get that idea, or think that it was okay to say such a thing about such a huge, varying group of people? I have a neighbor friend who fits in that category, and she's one of the nicest, most considerate and empathetic people I know. She's one of those sweethearts you have to be careful not to take advantage of without giving enough in return.