Let’s Stick a Fork in the Term Mental Retardation

posted Friday December 16th, 2016



The other day I took Annabelle, Sophie’s big sister, to a doctor appointment at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The doctor recommended a flu shot and, glancing at the consent form, I noticed the term “mental retardation.”

In 2016.

Look, I get that in the scheme of things this is not a big deal. Frankly, I’d rather we all run around calling each other retarded at the top of our lungs than endure the news of another Trump cabinet appointee. But we’re stuck with him (it appears) and we’re stuck with the stigma associated with a term that used to be a perfectly acceptable medical descriptor — and no longer is.

The federal government has done away with the term mental retardation. So has the state of Arizona, which means it really must be offensive if the legislature in my backward home state took note. The DSM has changed the acceptable terminology.

And yet, I see it often. A few weeks ago, it popped up on a form at Camelback Pediatrics, the practice we’ve always used.

Camelback Pediatrics has updated that form since our visit. An official from Phoenix Children’s Hospital emailed yesterday to say they are reviewing all their medical forms; the one I saw was outdated, she said.

Good. I fucking hate being the word police. I’m a First Amendment fan, both personally and professionally. But this is such a small thing, not using the term mental retardation, in such a big mess of a world. More and more these days, I’m finding it’s the little things — scratch ‘n sniff stickers at Trader Joe’s, glittered M&Ms at Target, a cuddle with my poodle, Sophie’s Santa letter — that gets me through the day. Someone thoughtful enough to use the term intellectually disabled, if only because they know it will make me feel better.

Now more than ever, words matter. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, sometimes they’re all we have.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism has a useful style guide if you’re wondering about other words.

Image of Sophie by Monica Aissa Martinez. 





Did you enjoy this article?
Share the love
Get updates!
Tags: Filed under: Uncategorized by Amysilverman

2 Responses to “Let’s Stick a Fork in the Term Mental Retardation”

  1. Well done! Thank you for keeping on the people who, at the start and end of the day, should be the first to get on bandwagon. Keep up the Word Police Work! (And, btw, the drawing of Sophie is AMAZING!)

  2. Change is slow. Even if they know, I don’t suppose they’d throw out tons of forms they already have. Might just change when they actually run out of the old forms. What’s the accepted medical term now, by the way? I recall you mentioning it, but can’t remember it now.

Leave a Reply

My Heart Can't Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome is available from Amazon and 
Changing Hands Bookstore
. For information about readings and other events, click here.


All content ©Amy Silverman | Site design & integration by New Amsterdam Consulting