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In Shift, Supreme Court Moves Away From ‘Mental Retardation’


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In striking down a strict IQ cutoff for determining who has intellectual disability, the U.S. Supreme Court also acted to update the language it uses to describe the condition. (Shutterstock)

In striking down a strict IQ cutoff for determining who has intellectual disability, the U.S. Supreme Court also acted to update the language it uses to describe the condition. (Shutterstock)

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling clarifying what constitutes intellectual disability also marked a major milestone in efforts to put an end to use of the term “mental retardation.”

For the first time ever, the nation’s highest court used the term intellectual disability in its decision last week in a case known as Hall v. Florida.

“Previous opinions of this court have employed the term ‘mental retardation.’ This opinion uses the term ‘intellectual disability’ to describe the identical phenomenon,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

In explaining the court’s change, Kennedy pointed to use of the updated language in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Kennedy also cited Rosa’s Law, a 2010 act requiring “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability” to be used in lieu of “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” in federal health, education and labor policy.

The Supreme Court’s move to follow suit marks what may be the last major national institution to adopt language that self-advocates have been urging for decades.

“Getting the name change in the eyes of the court is kind of the last step in a 25 year process to affirm the dignity of people with intellectual disability,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

A grassroots effort that began with self-advocates who didn’t want to be called “retarded” lobbying organizations like those now known as The Arc and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities to modify their own names, ultimately led most states to alter language in their laws.

More recently, campaigns like Special Olympics’ “Spread the Word to End the Word” have encouraged the public to drop what many find to be offensive terms from everyday speech.

The Supreme Court’s adoption of the updated terminology came in a ruling last week asserting that states must consider a margin of error in IQ test scores when assessing who has intellectual disability.

At issue was the case of Freddie Lee Hall, a convicted murdered who was sentenced to death despite having IQ scores ranging from 60 to 80.

Previously, in a 2002 case, the high court determined that those with intellectual disability were not eligible for the death penalty. In its latest action, the Supreme Court clarified its position by striking down Florida’s rigid requirement that individuals must have IQ scores of 70 or below to be diagnosed with intellectual disability.

Berns from The Arc indicated that his group and others advocating on behalf of people with disabilities have noted for years in briefs to the court that “mental retardation” is an outdated term. Nonetheless, advocates continued using the term in court papers to ensure that language within their legal arguments did not cause confusion.

Now, however, with the Supreme Court acknowledging that intellectual disability is an updated way to refer to what was once known as “mental retardation,” advocates can use their preferred wording.

“We will be able to move away from the old terminology once and for all,” Berns said.

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Comments (13 Responses)

  1. Barbara Bilyeu says:

    Oh my heaven – they have finally got something right!

  2. amyh1965 says:

    Now that we’ve put the old term to rest everyone can start protesting how degrading it is to be referred to as having an intellectual disability and a new campaign can begin to roll out some other new, preferred, terminology. It’s an endless cycle folks. No one will ever be happy with what we call it. Political correctness is just a diversion from doing something real to help the cause.

  3. Martha Ramos says:

    It will be much better if the Congress can adopt the terminology “intellectual functional diversity”. I have a 9 years old girl with Down syndrome and for us she is not mentally disabled. She learns different, that’s all.

    I invite you to look for the terminology “functional diversity” or “diversidad funcional” and you will understand what I am trying to say. If you have the means to share this information to the Congressmen do not hesitate to do it. We will apppreciate it.

    Martha Ramos
    Puerto Rico

  4. Steve says:

    I’m afraid amyh1965 may have it right. Not “no one” , but certainly “not everyone” will be happy, and a new derogatory expression will probably be born, or the old derogatory expressions will remain.

    “Moron, imbecile, and idiot” were clinical terms used by French doctors in the 19th Century.

    More money for training new teachers and clinicians would help. More money directed towards families with disabled children would help. More schools and facilities dedicated to helping children and adults would help. All this costs big bucks. No one wants to pay for it. Certainly not in this day and age.

  5. Lisbeth Nook says:

    Wonderful news! No longer will people with intellectual disabilities have to endure the feeling of degradation and the associative stigma of all the degrading jokes and insulting name calling in our culture. It’s about time!

  6. Sandy Coleman says:

    Making progress.

  7. Veronica says:

    “In this day and age” – when ever ??

  8. cjb says:

    You can change the words you use, but the behavior to degrade others will always be there. Like Amy says, it just starts the cycle all over again. Having had a child who was mentally retarded and has since passed away, if words were all I had to worry about – my life was great!

  9. Karen says:

    I have an adult daughter with Intellectual Disability. I am happy that this new name is now a federal law. It’s very important to me as many other families and individuals with this disability. It is less stigmatizing and definitely more of a positive name.

  10. StanH says:

    Next they might also decipher what a citizen united or a voter should be labelled. One gets the impression that judges and church leaders in this country still drive Model Ts. It takes these oligarchs so long to figure things out so that the rest of us can all stand and applaud with the one-handed clap from “Laugh In” at the back of the room. But then I was trained not to be derogatory to others and to remember that maturation and development are a big part of the human continuum. So why do we slice off chunks still and label ourselves? Because we all can’t just get along? When they ask you for your race on a survey, just write the word “human”.
    Just don’t ask the Supreme Court to explain it!

  11. IAN welling says:

    They are finally doing something right for a change.

  12. farmbrough says:

    It does seem to be a waste of money. However retardation is not really accurate. whereas intellectual disabilities would seem to cover a wider-range of handicaps.

  13. Evelyn Cherry says:

    I am the mother & guardian of Sean, he has Profound Mental Retardation. This means he functions at the level of 8 1/2 month old baby even though he is 41 yrs old. Sean is medically fragile, physically disabled (15 surgeries), behavior problems as many individuals with Profound Mental Retardation have. I deeply resent Playing a “Word Game” with THIS NAME for a DISABILITY! This change to “Intellectual Disability” has thrown (LUMP) together so many disabilities as to make it absolutely “Meaningless”!

    Same kind of reasoning, the NEW NAME for ALL OF “Heart Disease”, “Lung Disease”, “Kidney Disease”, “Stomach Disease”, “Bowel Disease”, Liver Disease” etc. LUMPED TOGETHER WOULD BE “ABDOMANAL Disablity”! SEE IT WOULD BE “MEANINGLESS!

    Too much wasted effort for WHAT IS A VERY REAL DISABILITY!!

    Then you can play 20 Questions or USE Paragraphs to HELP EVERYONE to try to figure out WHAT the REAL DISABLITY that you are talking about IS!

    Evelyn Cherry Garland, TX

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