Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Intellectual Disability" is the New "Mental Retardation"

Not quite a year ago, I wrote about a new piece of legislation that had been introduced in the U.S. Senate: "Rosa's Law", named after a girl in Maryland with Down syndrome, that would change the use of the term "mental retardation" in federal health, education, and labor policy. The designated replacement term is "intellectual disability."

I'm happy to report that Rosa's Law has now become actual law, signed by President Obama yesterday. Disability Scoop reports that the measure was approved unanimously by Congress (an amazing development, getting THIS Congress to agree on anything!!) The actual changes will take effect over time, as the relevant documents come up for revision.

If I weren't convinced already that "intellectual disability" is a step from an increasingly-pejorative term to a less-freighted one, a comment from mama edge on my last year's post would have sealed it for me:

You really helped me today. I've been unable to talk to Taz about his mental retardation, but I think I could definitely talk to him about his intellectual disability.

That's the level of what's at stake here!

Now, I'm under no illusions that intellectual disability won't pick up its own negative freight. After all, mental retardation was an immense step forward in its day, from terms like moron and idiot into a more clinical term of art. But now it has become a casual insult, like its predecessors. It's time for it to go.

Maybe the next time we switch terms, a few decades down the pike, we'll be able to come up with one with few enough syllables that it doesn't torpedo the reading level of any document containing it!

Meanwhile -- intellectual disability is the latest and greatest. A fine step forward.


K- floortime lite mama said...

I am so happy at the this change
really it is a BIG step ahead

On a related but not totally related topic

Sometimes I wonder if we are even measuring all the things

Like should their be a terms "goodness disability" for bullies
For while our kids are disabled in somethings they have a lot of abilities in other things

WHat is the measure of the worth of child
I am rambling

JoyMama said...

K - your "what is the measure" question reminds me of a post that's up over at Thin Places -- on the question of "is every human life equally valuable." How could one possibly make those comparisons -- is my child worth more than your child or anyone else's child -- and yet such unspoken comparisons seem to be made all the time...

I don't think I want to let bullies off the hook quite that easily... Is it a disability if the person affected can choose not-to-be-that-way anymore?

Come ramble with me anytime! :-)

Professor Mother said...

Lookee there- we both saw HOW important this change in the language of the law is! Big, huh? Wish more people were celebrating!

I think it's important to remember the definition of a disability- a life-long condition that affects the quality of someone's life. It's not behavior- it's the ability to cope within a given context. Context is the important part.. And related to K's comment- so much is sometimes made of one "area" when within a different context, there may not be an much of an impact.

I loved the link you provided- thanks!

JoyMama said...

P.M. - definitions = evidence of the importance of using words with precision!! There's probably some good blog-fodder in picking apart the terms ability, inability, and disability.

In the interest of further precision -- while developmental disabilities have that lifelong component to the definition, other disabilities can be temporary (broken leg, for example!) Autism, of course, has the whole "recovery" can-o-worms controversy...

Anonymous said...

i've been hearing 'ID' a lot lately, and it's definitely better. let's see how long it takes to become a "casual insult."

Anonymous said...

Labels are tough, no matter what. Intellectual disability is much better than mental retardation though. The language certainly counts.

Casdok said...

Getting there slowly!

telemommie said...

I find any shift in our language pretty fascinating, but I feel like banning a word makes it so powerful. In my Geeky world I compare it to Harry Potter being the only one who can say "Voldemort," and the only one who can overcome him. I worry that people who would have understood what I mean when I say my daughter is MR will not understand Intellectually Disabled. However, I do see that it's time to move on.

JoyMama said...

telemommie - interesting. But the "r-word" already has so much power, no? Another approach would be to try to reclaim the word -- along the lines of gay pride, perhaps. Really though, no new word is going to last in the long run unless we somehow manage to lose the stigma. And in a society that puts such a premium on intellect/cleverness/smarts, it's a steep hill to climb.

Autism Army Mom had an interesting post a while back, noting that she'd occasionally seen "autistic" used pejoratively like "retarded" (on Twitter). Hmmm.