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.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

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.

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.