On Monday, the District government filed a lawsuit to take over two allegedly substandard group homes for the mentally disabled. It’s a commendable move by a government that sometimes fails to provide basic human services. However, if Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and his administration are committed to helping the city’s mentally disabled, they should start by striking the phrase “mentally retarded” from the city government.
Just a brief cruise of District websites reveals how far this outmoded term has permeated through D.C. government. There’s the Department of Disability Services’s Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, and the D.C. Superior Court has a mental health and mental retardation division. Even Attorney General Peter Nickles’s biography touts his work with “mentally retarded residents.”
“[Mentally retarded] is being generally phased out,” said Doreen Croser, the executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. The AAIDD will soon publish the 11th edition of its guide to mental disability, which recommends using the term “intellectually disabled.”
While mentally retarded was once an acceptable term for the mentally disabled, Croser said it has now taken on a pejorative meaning and is best replaced by intellectually disabled.
“What happened in the schoolyard? Kids got called retarded,” she said.
Mayor Fenty and others in D.C. government should take notice of Croser’s argument. No other government office would be named after a slur demeaning the very group it serves.
To be fair, many other city and state governments still use “mentally retarded” in the names of agencies and government documents. Even Croser’s organization used to be called the AAMR—the American Association on Mental Retardation.
“They’re not so far behind the times,” Croser said.
The District, then, is far from a final bigoted holdout. Just because Washington isn’t behind the times, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t rush into the future. With the introduction of Tuesday’s bill on gay marriage, the D.C. City Council proved itself willing to be one of the first governments to stand up for a group’s rights. In the same way, the District’s government should cease to use the term “mental retardation.”
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