Experts Say Mentally Retarded Get Inferior Care

By: Yereth Rosen

When Loretta Claiborne was nine years old and having trouble walking, her doctor blamed her mental retardation. The physician told her mother to "take her home and just smack her on the butt," Claiborne said.

It turned out the young girl had a malformed bone in her foot that had to be removed by surgery.

The dismissive treatment she received, Claiborne said at a special hearing of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, is typical of the inferior health care given to mentally retarded patients.

"If I'm not treated with respect, think about the people who can't speak for themselves," said Claiborne, now an articulate Special Olympics marathon runner from Pennsylvania.

Her arguments were supported by a study on health care for the mentally retarded that was released by Special Olympics at the hearing.

The study, which compiled data from a variety of reports, presented a pattern of inadequate treatment for ailments ranging from poor eyesight and gum problems to potentially fatal illnesses like heart disease.

As few as 30 percent of patients with mental disabilities receive care from medical specialists, for example, even though 92 percent of them need such specialty care, the report said.

Mentally retarded patients are more likely to suffer from chronic conditions like obesity and cardiovascular disease and are less likely to be treated for mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety disorders.

And children with mental retardation are more likely to be victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect, the report said.

Tim Shriver, president of Special Olympics, said the medical profession was part of the problem.

"The reality is that this population is still discriminated against by people in the medical profession," he asserted.

U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher also testified at the hearing, saying health care providers need better education to deliver appropriate services.

"I think it does start with training and sensitivity to people with mental retardation," he said.

Satcher plans to issue a Surgeon General's report giving recommendations on how to close the health care gap suffered by mentally retarded patients.

Reprinted with Permission, Copyright Reuters 2001