Mental retardation vs. intellectual disability: Social Security weighs change

Advocates are applauding a move by the Social Security Adminstration to drop the term “mental retardation” in favor of “intellectual disability.”

For years, many have argued that “mental retardation” carries a stigma. Congress responded to this concern in 2010 by passing Rosa’s Law, which substituted “intellectual disability” in several federal laws.

Now the Social Security Administration wants to extend that change beyond the bounds of Rosa’s Law. It wants to adopt “intellectual disability” as the official terminology of both Title II of the Social Security Act — which deals with federal disability insurance — and Title XVI — which concerns Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for people with disabilities.

The agency is accepting comments on the proposal at regulations.gov through February 27.

So far, the idea has garnered almost universal praise: 39 commenters express support for the change, while three criticize it.

“My son has L1 Syndrome.. this affected his brain. He has less of a brain to work with.. so I always think of him as being smarter than everyone else because he’s working with less!!” writes Dawn Grider. “He is intellectually disabled but, never has been or will be retarded. He is constantly going FORWARD not BACKWARD. Thank you for doing the same. FORWARD ON!!!”

Martina Carroll says the change is overdue. “The words ‘mental retardation’ need to be replaced with ‘intellectual disability’ everywhere. The older term is repugnant and has no place in our language.”

“The term “retard” is still prevalent in many circles and this bill may start training people to stop using the mental retardation label & instead, adopt a more appropriate description,” adds Trish Shortal.

But Shaun Best says “intellectual disability” still has negative connotations. He offers an alternative: “In order for all humans to reach their individual potential, we should stop addressing them intentionally & legally negative/unpleasant terms, i.e., injured, disabled, retarded, handicapped, etc.,” he writes. “I use the term challenged/challenges, which means “to demand as due or deserved”. Isn’t this more productive for humanity?”

And Daryl Bessler argues the newer term lacks legal precision: “Intellectual Disability does not adequately differentiate between various forms of Intellectual deficiencies. If it isn’t broke don’t fix it.”

Do you think it’s time to retire the term “mental retardation”? And is “intellectual disability” the best alternative? Weigh in at regulations.gov — and add your comment below so GIMBY readers can benefit from it too!


GIMBY | Blog | Mental retardation vs. intellectual disability: Social Security weighs change.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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