History of Stigmatizing Names for Intellectual Disabilities Continued

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Language is a potent tool that reflects and shapes societal attitudes and beliefs. The term "retard," historically used as a clinical descriptor for individuals with intellectual disabilities, has evolved into a pejorative term loaded with stigma and discrimination. Its origins in the mid-20th century as a seemingly neutral term derived from the Latin word retardare, meaning "to make slow," have been overshadowed by its subsequent derogatory usage. This shift underscores a broader societal recognition of the power of language to harm, and the need to adopt more respectful and empowering terminology. The evolution of language concerning intellectual disabilities not only mirrors changing societal values but also emphasizes the importance of respectful representation. It highlights an ongoing commitment to dignity, equality, and respect for all individuals, regardless of their intellectual capabilities. Such linguistic transformation is a crucial aspect of fostering inclusive societies that value every member's contribution and potential.

Common Stigmatizing Names


As introduced by S.G. Howe (1846), simpleton was intended to mean people with mild intellectual disability. However, it never fully entered the worldwide medical community's terminology. The term was later replaced by "moron."

Moron was an invented word. A psychologist named Henry Goddard developed the term. It was used to classify people with mild intellectual disabilities. Goddard created the novel word by combining parts of words like sophomore and oxymoron. The term was used to replace feeble-minded. Feebleminded was misused by society to refer to people with any severity of ID.

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Feeble-minded came from the Latin word flebilis. It means, "to be lamented." It referred to people who were not profoundly disabled, but still required intervention and care.

Retarded comes from the Latin retardare. This means, "to make slow, delay, keep back, or hinder." The first record of the word "retarded" in relation to developmental delay was in 1895. The term retarded was used to replace terms like idiot, moron, and imbecile. This was because it was not a derogatory term at that time. However, by the 1960s, the term became a word used to insult someone.

It is interesting to note, that in each case, the original term was neutral in meaning. As the term entered public use, it become pejorative. This fact illuminates social cruelty born of ignorance and fear. There are always competing elements of society. Some of people seek respectful, neutral medical terms. Others misuse these same terms as weapons to insult people.

Legislative and Clinical Milestones

For health care professionals, diagnostic labels serve as a form of shorthand communication. Diagnostic labels rapidly communicate a set of symptoms associated with a particular condition. It may simultaneously suggest an appropriate treatment. However, when these conditions carry a social stigma, the diagnostic labels themselves become stigmatizing. The original, medical term loses its intended neutral meaning.

In October 2010, President Barrack Obama signed into law a bill known as Rosa's Law. This law required the terms "mental retardation" and" mentally retarded" be stricken from federal records. Instead, these terms were replaced with "intellectual disability" and "individual with an intellectual disability." The most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, APA, 2013) adopted the term intellectual disability. It replaced the older term mental retardation. This change was due in part to these changes in the law.

Power of Words

The evolution of language surrounding intellectual disabilities is a powerful reflection of society's growing commitment to respect, dignity, and inclusion. From the transition of terms laden with stigma to those that communicate respect and recognition of the individual, it's clear that words hold immense power to influence societal attitudes. This transformation is not merely about political correctness but about fostering a society where every individual is valued and respected. Rosa's Law and the changes in the DSM-5 are significant milestones that underscore the importance of language in promoting an inclusive society.

As we continue to advance in our understanding and acceptance, it’s crucial for each of us to be mindful of the impact our word choices have on the people around us and on societal attitudes as a whole. By choosing words that respect and uplift, we contribute to a culture that acknowledges the worth and potential of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Let’s all strive to use language as a tool for empowerment rather than exclusion, affirming our collective commitment to a more inclusive and respectful world.

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