'Retarded' label is out

“Mentally retarded” is out, reports the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  “People with intellectual disabilities” seems to be in.

The Allegheny County Office of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities is now the Allegheny County Office of Intellectual Disability.

“The term “mentally retarded” focused only the limitations of people, that somehow these were people who were substandard,” said Donald Clark, deputy director of the office, which comes under the county Department of Human Services. “People with intellectual disabilities can live productive lives.”

Nationally, the “American Association on Mental Retardation” is now the “American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.”

The name changes can be confusing, writes Christina Samuels, who blogs On Special Education at Ed Week. Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States is now The Arc of the United States, which says nothing about its purpose.

She asks what readers think of “special needs,” an increasingly popular replacement for disability categories. Is it too vague? Too cutesy?

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  1. Well, until the legislature in Texas changes the name, one of the 13 qualifying disabilities will still be mental retardation.

  2. Old news. The new word is better because it covers a wider variety of problems. But many people really are retarded because of their disabilities, and there’s nothing un-PC about saying so. The funny thing is that the aversion to “retarded” is that kids and other immature people use it as a taunt, and adults are changing their language because of what immature people say when they tease. But changing their language will not make these ‘retards’ grow up.

  3. The problem is that the term mental “retardation” describes a condition that is generally viewed as negative. Changing the name will ultimately not be successful.
    We once called people, “crippled”. People viewed the word as having a negative connotation so for a while we called people “handicapped”. Now that word has a negative

  4. As a special educator, I say that this is a label that can’t be done away with fast enough.

    Here’s the problem: “Mental retardation” is a clinical diagnosis. “Retarded” is an unfortunately somewhat popular and incredibly insulting term for stupid and incompetent.

    If you’ve ever had to sit in an evaluation meeting and get to the part where you have to label the child’s disabilities, and you see the parents visibly convulse at the clinical label, you’d understand why it’s not a good thing to have the conflation of the popular and the clinical.

  5. georgelarson says:


    How will the problem of conflation of the popular and the clinical be prevented from recurring?

  6. SuperSub says:

    “People with intellectual disabilities can live productive lives.”

    As if changing their label from ‘retarded’ to ‘intellectually disabled’ all of a sudden makes their lives more productive.

    Dan –
    Whatever label they choose next will become an insult also… the insult lies in the meaning of the word and not the word itself.

    While I have no problem with the change in term, I am disappointed that seemingly rational individuals think that the change will have any actual benefit for individuals who are retarded or intellectually disabled. Dan’s anecdote illustrates this perfectly… the term is being changed to alleviate the embarassment and discomfort of others.

  7. “Dan’s anecdote illustrates this perfectly… the term is being changed to alleviate the embarassment and discomfort of others.”

    I completely 2nd this notion. It is the parents of children with mental retardation that have been forcing the name change.

    I’ve pointed out on more than 1 occasion that there is no other practical diagnosis for children anymore than autism. 2 decades ago, many children would have been given completely different diagnosis. It’s the only “PC” diagnosis in the last 2 decades and not surprisingly we have “record” numbers of autism.

    In my mind, it’s not because there’s been some actual increase in autism — it’s because doctors won’t give/use the old diagnosis because of the taboos.

    And a truth is that maybe those parents might be better off working through that initial discomfort of the real diagnosis and accepting little Johnny for who he is, rather than wandering around with a watered down “he could be “normal”” feel good image of what he should be.

  8. Sigivald says:

    Too vague, too cutesy, yes.

    And what PaulD said – it’s never going to be viewed as anything but a negative.

    Because, well, it is one. Because nobody’d ever choose it voluntarily.

    (“…somehow these were people who were substandard.” – well, yeah, Mr. Deputy Directory. That’s precisely what people think.

    Even if the people in question can (as they often unquestionably can!) lead meaningful and valuable lives, it’s still a “substandard” condition to live in.

    See above, re. nobody ever voluntarily choosing it or, for instance, deliberately inducing brain damage to simulate it.

    There’s no reason to be insulting or dismissive of people with developmental disability, or to deny their humanity or worth-as-persons … but there’s equally no basis for pretending it’s not a disability, or not a negative.)

    And I must pile on with what George and SuperSub said – the conflation of the clinical and the popular cannot be prevented. Kids who wish to insult will use whatever clinical term they’ve seen applied to the “Special” (or whatever the new term is), identically – or some adaptation of it, the way “developmentally retarded” became “retard”.

    Changing the word won’t have any effect on that. It can’t have any effect on that, because as SuperSub said, the insult is in the meaning of the word or phrase, because it’s a status that is a negative.

    (I agree that it’s completely unfair to refer to stupidity or incompetence with the same term that someone with an actual developmental disability is referred to with. But insulting terms are themselves already “unfair”, and you cannot alter it with terminology, legislation, or anything else other than convincing people not to.

    And lots of luck with that one, especially in the schoolyard.)

  9. The one problem with using “special needs,” is that arguably, many, many people could be “special needs.” It’s an extremely vague term. It could apply to anything from a minor physical challenge to someone who is severely compromised in their ability to interact with others.

    (Also, for some of us, “special” is becoming tainted by the “special snowflakes” – people who don’t necessarily have “special needs” but who act like they are entitled to “special accommodations.”)

  10. I have to take issue that all in that group – whatever it is called- can lead productive lives. It sounds nice but it is a nice fantasy (as it is for the severely autistic or psych handicapped). Those at the lowest level are incapable of taking care of their own basic needs, let alone being “productive”. The idea of placing them in any kind of school, as currently mandated by IDEA, is ridiculous; it’s incredibly expensive daycare and their needs should be addressed outside of academic institutions.

    The next group above is also poorly served in regular schools; they need intensive training in life and employment skills, so that they may be as productive as their intellectual capacities allow, but they aren’t capable of handling the level of abstraction necessary for academics above the basic level. Those basic academic skills can best be taught in a setting tailored to their needs.

    It isn’t until the just-below-average group is reached that mainstreaming really meets the needs of that group without compromising the needs of the rest of the inclusive class.

    The labels don’t matter, but the pretenses that “all can be productive” or “all can achieve” or “everyone is gifted at something” do have negative real-world consequences. The one-size-fits-all model really does not fit all, and may not even fit most.

  11. Cynical says:

    To the deluded people who think that changing a label will do anything about the popular image of the re-labelled group, I give you this common phrase to chew on:

    “That is so gay.”

  12. wahoofive says:

    That is so totally backwards. “Retarded” just means “behind”. Such people used to be called “slow”, but hey, slow and steady wins the race. No matter now far behind you get, you arrive at the destination eventually.

    “Disabled”, on the other hand, means you can’t do something. If you’re in a wheelchair, you can’t walk. If you’re “learning disabled”, you can’t learn? This seems like a step backwards, and as other commenters have said, a pointless shell game of trying to constantly change the words to keep ahead of playground insults.

  13. Chartermom says:

    First as regards to the term “special needs” and whether or not such terms eventually become insults. I have already heard my kids describe kids who don’t quite fit in as “special” so that evolution has begun.

    Personally I’ve always wished that the word handicapped hadn’t become so non-PC. It seems the perfect description in that it doesn’t imply that individuals are totally incapable, just that they may not be able to do some things and for others they may have added difficulty or need special accomodations. It also seems to allow for a range of handicaps — someone may have a minor handicap and others major handicaps.

    AM — interessting observation on autism being a PC diagnosis and therefore the rise. However I have to ask the converse — is it possible that in the past some autistic kids were diagnosed as mentally retarded and thus are now being correctly diagnosed? In either case the impact on the numbers is the same — it appears that the frequency of the condition is increasing when what has really changed is the frequency of the diagnosis.

  14. Slightly off target but… I have an extremely intelligent 13 year old niece who, along with her friends, loves to say while rolling their eyes and giggling “we’re so special”. Language changes, it’s part of society and life. We have gotten entirely to PC with our labeling. Some things do need labels. Clear and concise labels.

  15. Dan; I’ve been in those meetings, and if evaluation personnel ever told the parents of a child a diagnosis like that in front of other people, I would file a complaint.

    I usually pull the parents aside, and go over the evaluation, so as to preclude surprises. My wife, who does similar assessments, told the parents of a child with mental retardation, about the diagnosis, and the mom burst into tears.

    Nobody told me; she said. The student was 13 and had been in Lifeskills (functional academic) Classes for 7 years.

    Chartermom: What may have changed is a program called 3 is 3. Now we’re getting initial referrals from doctors, social workers, Child Protective Services workers, and literally anyone who has our phone number and suspects a problem. So, yes we’re seeing more younger referrals. It is possible, but not as likely, to be both autistic and have mental retardation. Or autism. Or mental retardation. So it’s complex and it takes an experienced team to sort it out.

  16. Roger Sweeny says:

    Ironically, “retarded” began as a nicer replacement for “idiot” or often “mongoloid idiot” (for the somewhat east asian look of people with Downs).

    Retarded simply means “slowed down” but for most people the word is now taken as an insult. I’m a physics teacher and once used retarded to describe an object’s motion. The students snickered.

  17. I remember visiting the (long-defunct) state institution for those at the bottom end of the cognitive spectrum and I remember seeing behaviors that would now result in a diagnosis of autism. In that era, the terms idiot, imbecile and moron were part of the diagnostic manual, with specific IQ ranges assigned to each. Of course, those terms are no longer allowed to be used as originally defined, but I can certainly remember all of them being applied by my kids to one or more of their siblings, as a non-specific insult.

  18. What a bunch of PWID’s.

  19. SuperSub says:

    PWID? Help me out there Rex…

  20. I notice no one who has commented here actually HAS a real, live child that they love with a disability in this area. Very easy for you to talk of how the actual WORD means “slowed down,” but has it ever occurred to you that in this climate, that using these words to label a child is a form of bullying? You already know your kid is going to be called a stupid retard by the other kids. Do the teachers have to do that during IEP meetings, too? Is there no safe place?

    Even labelling “intellectual disability” is overbroad. As you may well know, there are nonverbal autistic people out there who can write and reason well. There are savants who cannot properly use the toilet. It would be better to give “ID” (or whatever) scores in areas such as self-care (toilet, toothbrushing), language comprehension and etc.


    Just as a for-instance.

  21. SuperSub says:

    Mrs. C
    While I cannot say that I have a disabled child nor do I have relatives that are, you are assuming too much that none of the commenters have a personal stake in this issue. They may just not want to base their arguments on their personal lives.
    I also notice that no where in your post did you state that you have a child or relative who is affected. By your own logic that would disqualify your statement just as you seem to disregard the others.
    You have ignored the main point of those who argued against the reclassification – that no matter what term is chosen to describe the diagnosis, it will be used to ‘bully’ the children as you fear. It is the intent behind the use of the word that constitutes the bullying, not the term itself. I have seen ‘positive’ words used to bully children just as much as I have seen ‘negative’ words.

  22. Supersub, my child was diagnosed JUST YESTERDAY, the day of this posting. So… there you go.

    This is the same line of reasoning that makes calling someone a “n*gger” or the like unacceptable. Time was when all that meant was “black.”


    Connotation is all. I think it’s a valid point that the extreme negative connotation ought call for sensitivity on the part of educators who are labelling children for educational purposes. It in no way negates the need to work to eliminate stereotypes and bullying.

  23. SuperSub says:

    I agree that any professional needs to use sensitivity when dealing with hot button topics (Doctors don’t just say “Your mother is dead” and leave it at that) but that doesn’t change the truth of the situation. Focusing on a simple word, though, wastes effort and time that should be spent actually alleviating or solving the problem.
    I do apologize for any insensitivity to your situation. While I do not have any close personal experience with special needs, I have had friends who have and I do not envy them for their struggles.
    It’s just my reaction to this story is imagining a bunch of bureaucrats and pencil-pushers patting themselves on their backs for making such a huge advance in the rights of disabled individuals when they have spent time and money doing nothing that will actually help those that are disabled. Worse, the sense of achievement will likely blind them to the real problems.

  24. “AM — interessting observation on autism being a PC diagnosis and therefore the rise. However I have to ask the converse — is it possible that in the past some autistic kids were diagnosed as mentally retarded and thus are now being correctly diagnosed? In either case the impact on the numbers is the same — it appears that the frequency of the condition is increasing when what has really changed is the frequency of the diagnosis.”

    I have had great deal of experience with older adults with mental challenges. And yes, in past decades they were prone to errors such as you describe — especially confusing cerberal palsy with low IQ and behavior problems. It would not surprise there was more than one case of misdiagnosed autism.

    On the other hand, it does not change the fact that few Doctors are willing use mental retardation as a diagnosis anymore. As far as I’ve seen, every child is now is “austisic”. (“There’s a little genius inside”, as one father said to me.) I’m seeing descriptions of children (now adults) with “austism” who are clearly people who would have been a group home 2 decades ago with the diagnosis of mental retardation.

    It seems to me – and I apologize in advance Mrs. C – an austism diagnosis suggests a tiny, faint hope of normalcy. “Something” can and should be done. Mental retardation suggests the permanent closing of a door.

    The really sad part is everyone’s reactions to both the words and the people. Some of the happiest and sanest people I’ve ever met were under the diagnosis of mental retardation. All they wanted out of life was food, shelter, and hug. *shrug* It just seems to me that accepting them for the whole people that they are might be better in the long run than dancing around the terms.

  25. AM, what is going on is that my son was diagnosed as severely autistic, but given another diagnosis that is pretty much the same as “MR,” called “global developmental delay.”

    You can actually be autistic AND have intellectual problems, but they did tell me that what might be going on is that because of his lack of language, there are a bunch of other things he can’t pick up. And that the tests at this age are imprecise and it’s POSSIBLE he can test later without impairment. We just don’t know.

    I don’t think medical science has teased everything out, let alone decided on names for everything yet. Even in the autism community (I have other autistic children), everyone isn’t in agreement that the Asperger’s folks should be part of the special club. It would be nice if there were some standardization between what SCHOOLS mean by “autism” or intellectual disability, etc. and HOSPITAL terms. ‘Nother post maybe.

    God bless. Just sort of a sensitive issue for me this week obviously. 🙂

  26. Richard Nieporent says:

    This topic was addressed 400 years ago by the inimitable Bard of Avon.

    Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
    Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
    What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
    Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
    What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet;
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
    And for that name which is no part of thee
    Take all myself.

    No matter how many times we change the name we cannot change the condition that the name represents. If it is a negative condition then the new name will be seen as a pejorative.

  27. The foregoing discussion about autism and mental retardation is very interesting…even though I was inspired to write regarding getting rid of the term, “mental retardation.”

    I am a health-care provider, as well as a family member of a person with profound intellectual and very severe physical, developmental disabilities that are complicated by other health issues. How did I do? Did I offend anybody? I surely did use a lot of words! Just in order to get past this discussion when I actually want to address something else, I do use the PC language du jour.

    BUT I find unhelpful the emphasis on not using the term “mental retardation.” From a purely linguistic point of view, it a perfectly good, descriptive term, long accepted in law as well as common usage. Linguistically, is not at all derogatory or limiting. Instead, it is a term which causes rather immediate understanding for unusual behaviors with limited abilities such as thinking abilities, speech and social abilities delayed or arrested at an early age. This is especially useful when funding is being sought for supports.

    “Intellectual disabilities,” linguistically speaking, is too vague and, if not adequately qualified, tends to intensify confusion and misunderstanding. It includes problems that should be supported differently from those included in the traditional designation of “mental retardation.

    Many people with developmental disabilities have perfectly functional, age-appropriate mental abilities. People “on the autism spectrum” may be very intellectually quick in some areas and far less so in others, and still others, may be too aphasic to be accurately evaluated. To be able to use the term, “mental retardation” in conjunction with “autism” or not use it because it doesn’t fit would be an option worth retaining.

    Learning is most successful when supported starting from the individual’s developmental age and ability. Using a descriptive term such as “mental retardation” can get us into the ballpark of understanding what kind of impairments to be prepared to support.

    That ignorant, bigoted, attitudinally-challenged people have used the term as a degrading label should not be a reason to give it up. Instead, such occurrences should be used as opportunities to educate individuals and society about the valiant souls who bear the burden of it’s real meaning;… or whatever new terms are applied will be similarly degraded; it’s just a question of time..

    Thank you for the forum!
    Saskia Davis


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