Supreme Court Officially Substitutes Term “Intellectual Disability” for “Mentally Retardation” | Littman Krooks, LLP
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Supreme Court Officially Substitutes Term “Intellectual Disability” for “Mentally Retardation”

June 9th, 2014

By Stacy Sadove, Esq., and Marion Walsh, Esq., Littman Krooks LLP

The highest Court in the country has officially stopped using the term “mentally retarded” to refer to individuals with intellectual disabilities.  This shift in terminology by the Court shows a significant shift in society’s progress toward treating each other with dignity.

Specifically, in the recent decision of Hall v. Florida, the Supreme Court of the United States reaffirmed the core holding of the 2002 seminal case Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, 321 (2002).  Atkins created an Eighth Amendment categorical bar to executing persons with an intellectual disability. The case of Hall, also marked a major milestone in efforts to put an end to use of the term “mental retardation” to categorize persons with intellectual disabilities.

“Mentally retarded” represents the term used in the fourth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (the DSM-IV).  In prior decisions, the United States Supreme Court has indeed used the term.  But in Hall v. Florida, the Court acknowledges for the first time that the term “mentally retarded” is no longer appropriate to use.

The Supreme Court has sent an important message to the entire country on the importance of language and respect in referring to persons with disabilities.   The Court recognized the impact that words can have one on someone. A major motivation for this change came in 2010, when Congress passed “Rosa’s Law,” which substituted “intellectual disability” for “mental retardation” in several federal laws.

In the Opinion of the Court, Justice Kennedy notes, that previous opinions of the Court have employed the term “mental retardation”, and specifically states that the opinion in Hall uses the term “intellectual disability” to describe the identical phenomenon and that the change in terminology should be used going forward. Justice Kennedy also states that the change in the term “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability” is approved and used in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, one of the basic texts used by psychiatrists and other experts; the manual is often referred to by its initials “DSM,” followed by its edition number, e.g., “DSM–5.” See American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 33 (5th ed. 2013). See also Rosa’s Law, 124 Stat. 2643 (changing entries in the U. S. Code from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability”); Schalock et. al, The Renaming of Mental Retardation: Understanding the Change to the Term Intellectual Disability, 45 Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities 116 (2007).

The term “mentally retarded” is extremely pejorative and unnecessary to use when there are other words that do not have as stigmatizing an effect on persons with intellectual disabilities. Justice Kennedy writes the Eighth Amendment’s protection of dignity reflects the nation we have been, the nation we are, and the nation we aspire to be.” Similarly, to protect such dignity, word usage should be contemplated with respect to those who suffer from intellectual disabilities. This change in terminology represents a step forward for protecting those who suffer from intellectual disabilities.

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