Mental Health Provider Directory
Calendar of Events
Contact Us
Member Log In
Website Resources

Special Articles


Terminology Changes Coming At You Now:
- Submitted by

Terminology Changes Coming At You Now:
What’s In A Name (or a diagnosis)?
Gerald Drucker, Ph.D.

Following every major journal and professional organization in the field (and the forthcoming DSM-V), Redwood Coast Regional Center is officially retiring the term “Mental Retardation” and replacing it with the term “Intellectual Disability”. The following remarks are aimed at putting this change in context and helping people understand the importance of this change.
The funny thing about language is that it keeps changing as the culture changes. The current edition of Webster’s dictionary online has the term “google”, no doubt “twitter” and “tweet” are sure to follow. Just as words get added, other words get dropped. Just go see any production of a play by Shakespeare for many examples. What was once the king’s english is now almost a foreign language. What was once a proper term can fall into disuse or become derogatory. The field we work in is a prime example of this. Medical and scientific texts on those with intellectual deficits from the 19th century used the term “idiot” to refer to such individuals, although the term itself had been in use since the 1300s. In 1910, the precursor of the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR): the Committee on Classification of the Feebleminded, came up with a classification scheme for those who presented with significant intellectual impairments. The classification scheme decided upon by this professional body for those increasingly more intellectually impaired was: Feebleminded, Moron, Imbecile and Idiot. By the early 1950s the first Diagnostic Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association, DSM-I, replaced these terms with the term “Mental Retardation” , with AAMR adopting the term in 1961, while retaining the previous 4 level classification scheme using the words Mild, Moderate, Severe and Profound along with the words Mental Retardation. This classification scheme has been with us since then, until recently. Like its predecessors “moron” “imbecile” and “idiot”, the term “retardation” has become too derogatory and emotionally loaded. AAMR itself changed its named to The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in 2007 (and the name of its eponymously named Journal in early 2008). Curiously, until 2007, the California Penal Code Section 26 stated that "Idiots" were one of six types of people who are not capable of committing crimes. In 2007 the code was amended to read "persons who are mentally incapacitated.".

It seems clear that terms were changed when the old terms became too stigmatizing. Who would think to use the terms “moron”, “imbecile” or “idiot” today to refer to those with an intellectual disability? In my youth (some 50 years ago now) these words were curses hurled around the schoolyard. The word “retard” or “retarded” did not take too long to follow these schoolyard uses. To many individuals, and their families, the word “retard” has become hate speech. Like many racial and ethnic epithets, it has become a put-down loaded with prejudice and discrimination. As we adopt the new term, Intellectual Disability, (while retaining the 4 previously used modifiers of Mild, Moderate, Severe and Profound), we do so with the hope that we are also retiring the worn-out, prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes that for so long have served as barriers to all people of difference, whether intellectual or otherwise, preventing full inclusion and access to all that life offers.


Copyright © 2004 NCAMHP. All rights reserved. Web development by Page Weavers.