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Social Security Proposes Dropping ‘Mental Retardation’


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The Social Security Administration has signaled its intention to start using the term “intellectual disability” in place of “mental retardation.”

More than two years after Congress required the language switch in all federal health, education and labor policy under Rosa’s Law, Social Security officials said they want to follow the lawmakers’ lead even though the agency does not have any mandate to do so.

“Advocates for individuals with intellectual disability have rightfully asserted that the term ‘mental retardation’ has negative connotations, has become offensive to many people, and often results in misunderstandings about the nature of the disorder and those who have it,” the Social Security Administration said in a proposed rule published in the Federal Register on Monday.

“Consistent with the concerns expressed by Congress when it enacted Rosa’s Law, and in response to numerous inquiries from advocate organizations, we propose to revise our rules to use the term ‘intellectual disability’ in the name of our current listings and in our other regulations,” reads the notice.

The proposal’s publication this week triggers a 30-day public comment period before any official change can take place.

If Social Security officials move forward with the terminology update, all references to “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded children” would be replaced with “intellectual disability” and “children with intellectual disability” within Social Security’s Listing of Impairments and other rules.

The agency is not looking to alter the way claims are evaluated for those with the developmental disability.

“Changing how we talk about people with disabilities is a critical step in promoting and protecting their basic civil and human rights,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc. “This is an important moment for people with disabilities because Social Security is a lifeline to so many.”

This is not the first time the Social Security Administration has considered moving toward the term “intellectual disability.” In 2010, the agency issued a proposed rule calling for updates to eligibility criteria for those with mental disorders. Within the proposal, Social Security officials indicated an intention to replace references to “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability/mental retardation.” However, no further action was taken on the 2010 proposal, with the agency continuing to consider public comments on the possible changes.

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Comments (15 Responses)

  1. Theresa says:


  2. Jon K. Evans says:

    This gets tricky. Once upon a time, it was acceptable to refer to Black Americans as “Negroes” Now, the term is either archaic or insulting to Black Americans-even though Negro is Spanish and/or Latin for Black! I was using the term Hard Core Disabled to refer to anyone that would have a physical disorder a/la Christopher Reeve, or persons with Down’s Syndrome! I see a point where people will have need to have extra pairs of “Kid Gloves” to prevent from offending people!

  3. Bonnie Turner says:

    I am glad Social Security is moving away from mental retardation, but to move to intellectual disability just doesn’t sit right with me. I think that developmentally disabled which a lot of people/places use is better. For me, intellectual disability has the wrong connotations. It gives me the wrong impression. I have an adult daughter who is developmentally disabled and I’ve been through all types of language changes over the years mostly from the different schools she went to (we moved quite a few times to different states and cities). It will take me a bit of time to get used to intellectual disability.

  4. Mary Mills says:

    I tutor and I have substituted in elementary schools for all populations of students, and I prefer hearing intellectual learning differences applied to any person who has issues with disabilities of any type that are codified in some way by MHMR-affiliates, like the Social Security Administration . When they are mainstreamed into life from all levels of education, they may exhibit a variety of learning differences at social gatherings, in higher-level educational places, at-home, or on-the-job. I never liked the word disorder or disability/disabled, because many of these special people can learn to cope better with their single or combination disorder than others with more profound issues and to say disabled/disability implies that one is less than able to improve in any way. No one can read what goes on in their minds to even judge whether they have improved, even in infinitesimal ways. Hooray for “intellectual learning differences.”

  5. Michelle Millar says:

    Good to see the US coming up to speed with the UK. We have found this term “retardation” extremely offensive for quite some time and therefore it is never used. Instead, we use the term learning disability or intellectual disability. Positive progress in the use of language relating to people with a disability.

  6. Glenny says:

    About time. In Australia to say mentally retarded is not only offensive to parents of a child with ds such as myself but also most people. Intellectual dissability has been used in the medical field for years here unless they come from a different culture and then they are promptly corrected!

  7. Teresa Parsley says:

    I think this would be FANTASTIC !!!!
    Thank you !

  8. Kirsten says:

    Well, Jon and Theresa, we have evolved. Welcome! How, exactly, does one fit “Hard Core Disabled” into conversation sans sounding like a tween?

  9. George says:

    Those of you who disagree with the word intellectual disability come on out of the dark ages I have worked with children and adults with all types of disabilities and had 4 stepsons with intellectual disabilities and still today I hear parents call there child or adult son or daughter Retarded. When explained to them if you heard some one call your son or daughter a retard what would you say or do and it is a different story then as they said they would tell that person it was a hurtful word and don’t ever say that about them. Well when explained to them you call them retarded you did the same this the other person just used it in a shorter way so you said the same thing. John K do you have a son or daughter with a disability if so those kit gloves you call will help protect her from those who use the word Retard and taking that medical term away is the best thing for those who are tired of people using it to bully and other wise take off the kit cloves and torture those who have an intellectual disability. Bonnie you need to look at both developmentally disabled and intellectual disability ( A cognitive, emotional, or physical impairment, especially one related to abnormal sensory or motor development, that appears in infancy or childhood and involves a failure or delay in progressing through the normal developmental stages of childhood. ) Intellectual Disability is now replacing the word Mental Retardation or for those who use it in a different form Retard or Retarded which is the most common word for those who make it an insult or degrading term or to bully those who have a disability. Yes there is change but it is only in a good way Social Security is stubborn as a mule as they need to get out of the dark ages too if the Congress passes a law changing the medical term from using a word that hurts and makes those with that disability suffer through bullying well stop playing games with the American parent who has a child that has a disability and get off your butt and do what is right and just.

  10. Therese says:

    I wholeheartedly support this movement and have taken the pledge and do all I can to “spread the word”. My problem with this post is that the picture used here is of an actor who plays a character with Asperger’s. Why not use a pic of a child with special needs?

  11. Jess Carbo says:

    As a professional in the field of Vocational Rehabilitation, I have heard every PC & offensive adjective used to describe people with disabilities. I have found that it is impossible to use language that suits everyone. I agree wholeheartedly with Mary Mills in that the term “intellectual learning differences” is not only the least offensive, but also the most accurate in describing what we are actually referring to. Unfortunately, it is impossible to please everyone, and when it comes right down to it, we NEED terms for these diagnoses, so at least we are making progress by attempting to stop the use of the word “retarded.”

    Now if we could just convince people (Mr. Jon K. Evans, for instance) that it IS appropriate to consider how our words (and actions for that matter) affect the people around us. I feel it is fair for someone with a disability to ask to be called whatever they choose, or to have their disability called what they would like, as long as realism is involved. I’m all for empowerment of people with disabilities, and for emphasizing their strengths and abilities, rather than referring to them with a title that describes what they cannot do as well as others. I would hate being referred to as “height disabled” because I am short, or “running retarded” because I have terrible knees. Progress is progress, I suppose. It all has to begin somewhere.

  12. soricobob says:

    I always hate it when a term is used which the people it refers to cannot pronounce it.

  13. Chris Schultz says:

    I would say that it is about time. Social Security represents many individuals that have an intellectual disability. The time for proper wording is past due. I sincerely hopes that this takes place asap. The label of mental retardation has run its course, government agency need to be leaders in this not followers as we have seen.

  14. Chris Schultz says:

    To label or think that anyone person with a disability, for instance, down sydrome or autisim are put into a group that people see as disabled is really a shame reading some of the comments that I have seen on this post concern me that there are people that really think that if you have down syndrome that you are very disabled. Meet people with intellectuals disabilities they are all different some work full time some are married, some drive, some are christains and some are not. Really look at each person as you would anyone else.

  15. Sharon S says:

    Iseriously believe this is the smartest proposal for this issue. I extremely dislike the word retarded and hate hearing it being used in a negative manor. Kudos to whom ever made this decision!

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