City on a Hill: D.C., are you PC?

October 8, 2009

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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Nice piece Will, its good to see you call for a little forward thinking, thank you!

At Special Olympics we switched to ‘people with intellectual disabilities’ in 2004, but the message we really want to push is that it’s important to always use people first language and avoid labels.

For example, if you, Will, were to leave work today, trip on a curb and break your foot, that would not make you a ‘broken footed person’ but rather a ‘person with a broken foot.’ Putting the person before the label is always the best way to respect another person’s basic human dignity.

Obviously, language evolves so its important not to get too hung up on one term or word, but if everyone could stop, think, and put the person before the label, in any reference to a fellow human being, it’d go along way in helping Special Olympics to build communities of acceptance and inclusion for all people.


To me as long as it is being used as a medical definition it’s not a big deal. When it comes to someone calling something retarded because they think it’s stupid, or asking another if they are a retard, that’s another story. You shouldn’t be allowed to take away someone’s dignity with a casual remark.

T.J. Sutcliffe

Nice piece! Last week (10/20) the D.C. Council actually introduced legislation to do exactly that — remove the “R Word” from all District laws, rules and official government publications. Co-introducers were Chairman Gray and Councilmember Wells.

It’s a follow-up bill to a 2006 law where the District made “people first” language official (e.g., emphasizing the person over the disability by saying “people with disabilities” as opposed to “the disabled” as noted by Ryan). In 2006 what was as you note formerly AAMR had not yet determined what would replace MR. So the Council asked the District’s Developmental Disabilities Council to look at the issue. During that time, national groups agreed that “intellectual disability” would replace MR in professional use. Apparently the upcoming revision to the American Psychological Association’s diagnostic manual will make the new term official.

So the DC Council is going forward to change from MR to ID in all laws & official government publications. The bill was referred to the Committee on Human Services; Committee Chair Tommy Wells apparently plans to hold a hearing within the next 2 months.


Thanks for reminding us that we should always be forward thinking on these matters.


Thanks for the reminder