White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called the CEO of the Special Olympics last week and apologized for having used the phrase "f---ing retarded" in a 2009 strategy meeting with liberal groups. In an "Explainer" column first published last summer and reprinted below, Adrian Chen looked at whether it's still OK to use the word retarded.
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, died Tuesday morning at the age of 88. A number of articles made note of her work on behalf of the "mentally retarded" or in preventing "mental retardation." Is it still OK to use the word retarded?
Not really. The current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—which is used by psychiatrists to make clinical diagnoses—still employs the phrase mental retardation to describe people who score below about a 70 on IQ tests. However, most who work in the field—including psychologists, activists, and bureaucrats—prefer the term intellectual disability. (The next revision of the diagnostic manual, due out in 2012, may update its language accordingly.)
Intellectual disability has become the preferred nomenclature only in the past few years, so it's understandable that some newspapers are still using mental retardation. (Even disability experts were uncertain as to the status of the "R-word" until at least 2001.) The nation's most venerable organization of professionals concerned with ID used to be called the American Association on Mental Retardation but renamed itself the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities at the beginning of 2007. Still, the association's Web site contains numerous references to "mental retardation"—a fact its executive director attributes to "housekeeping" issues. The American Psychological Association has moved a little faster, subbing out "Mental Retardation" from the name of its "Division on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities" in 2006. The academic journal Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews updated its name just last year.
Government offices have also been moving away from mental retardation. In the past two months, six state agencies in charge of helping those with developmental and intellectual disabilities have dropped it from their names.
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Explainer thanks Doreen Croser of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, Sandy Root-Elledge of the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities, and Richard Rowley of the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.