Supreme Court Moves Away from ‘Mental Retardation’ Terminology

Recently the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s strict IQ cutoff for determining a convict’s eligibility for the death penalty. In this 5-4 ruling, the court decided that their cut off of 70 “disregards established medical practice” and creates “unacceptable risk” that a convicted person with an intellectual disability might be executed in violation of the constitution. They proposed that Florida follows other states’ examples by taking other factors into account apart from IQ in order to test for intellectual disability.

The case ruling also marked a milestone in the efforts to put an end to the use of the term “mental retardation” as the court, for the first time ever, used the term intellectual disability in its decision. Back in 2010, Obama signed what was called Rosa’s law, which requires that the federal government replace the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability especially in federal health, education, and labor policy. However, changing terminology in the political arena is a slow process. The Supreme Court’s decision to acknowledge the new terminology marks one of the last few major national institutions to adopt this “new language.”

“Getting the name change in the eyes of the court is kind of the last step in a 25 year process to affirm the dignity of people with intellectual disability,” says Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc, a grassroots organization that has been lobbying for this change along with many other advocacy groups.

Now that the Supreme Court has really clarified its stance on intellectual disability, perhaps we can really start making a move away from the outdated “mental retardation” which carries a heavier and much more negative connotation about those with disabilities. Changing the way we label someone can really influence the way we approach them as people as well as approach the obstacles that they face. The Court’s decision serves as an uplifting milestone in the disability community, especially for people with autism. 

Advocacy groups and self-advocates play an important role in the lives of those within the autism community. Self advocates, Stephen Shore and Ari Ne’eman are great public speakers, despite being on the spectrum themselves, who will be presenting with self-advocacy at our upcoming International Autism Conference. Click here for more info!