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Is 'retarded' really worse than 'mentally disabled'?

March 04, 2014|By Michael McGough
  • A worker clears snow from the plaza at the Supreme Court in Washington on Monday as those waiting to hear oral arguments line up.
A worker clears snow from the plaza at the Supreme Court in Washington on… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of a death row inmate in Florida that raises this question: “Whether the Florida scheme for identifying mentally retarded defendants in capital cases violates Atkins vs. Virginia.” Atkins vs. Virginia is the 2002 case in which the court held that “the mentally retarded should be categorically excluded from execution.”

The issue in Monday’s argument was whether Florida could define retardation in terms of a particular IQ score. Freddie Hall scored 71 on one test — a point higher than the state’s cutoff for retardation.

But a lot of news articles and editorials about the case avoided using the terms “retarded” or “retardation.” An editorial in The Times described Hall as having a “severely diminished mental capacity” and said that the Atkins decision held that “executing the intellectually disabled violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition against ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment.”

This usage tracks the Associated Press stylebook, which says that the preferred term for people of low intelligence is “mentally disabled” and not “mentally retarded.” As with many newspapers’ banishment of the term “illegal immigrant,” the rejection of “retarded” reflects the wishes of advocacy groups. The Arc, once known as the National Assn. for Retarded Children, jettisoned “retarded” because “the words ‘retardation’ and ‘retarded’ became pejorative, derogatory and demeaning in usage.”

Language evolves, and sometimes words that are neutral in their meaning acquire pejorative connotations. All the same, I’ve always been puzzled about why “mentally disabled” is preferable to “retarded.”

“Retarded” means slow, whereas “mentally disabled” is a much more categorical indictment of the mental aptitude of the people so labeled. A similar paradox lurks in the substitution of “disabled” for the now politically incorrect “handicapped.”

Perhaps “retarded” was a victim of the schoolyard insult “retard.” But that raises another problem. Euphemisms have a short half-life. Decades ago, “retarded” was the polite replacement for “slow-witted” or “dull.” But it didn’t take children long to turn a euphemism into an epithet. That process continues today. The kid who would have called his friend a “retard” 30 years ago now mocks him as “mentally disabled” or “special.” The insult lies not in the language but in the reality it refers to.

Rehabilitating “retarded” as a neutral description of low intelligence may be a lost cause. (On the other hand, liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan used versions of the word at Monday’s arguments.) But mark my words: At some point in the future, “mentally disabled” will also be in the firing line, because insensitive people will wield the term in cruel ways. Today’s euphemism is tomorrow’s insult.


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