IU disabilities expert: Decision shows Supreme Court catching up on language

Language matters. And language evolves. A change of terminology included in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision illustrates the point, according to David Mank, director of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at IU Bloomington.

The court, in the Hall v. Florida decision issued late last month, abandoned its past practice of referring to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities as “mentally retarded.” The case dealt with Florida’s standards for when judges could impose capital punishment.

“Previous opinions of this court have employed the term ‘mental retardation,'” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “This opinion uses the term ‘intellectual disability’ to describe the identical phenomenon.”


David Mank

Mank said the language change has been 10 or more years in the making among those who work with and advocate for people with disabilities. And he said it’s significant that the Supreme Court has gotten on board with terminology that is widely accepted in other circles.

“It’s the Supreme Court of the land,” he said. “For the justices to show respect for people with disabilities — to say, ‘We understand that words have meaning, and when a word becomes harmful we should stop using it’ — is to the good.”

Mank pointed out that attitudes toward people with disabilities have changed markedly over the past century, and language has changed along with attitudes.

For example, when the Muscatatuck State Developmental Center first opened in the southeastern part of the state in 1920, it was called the Indiana Farm Colony for the Feeble Minded. Later the name changed to Muscatatuck State Hospital, then to Muscatatuck State Hospital and Training Center, and finally to Muscatatuck State Developmental Center. (It closed in 2005).

The leading national advocacy group for people with developmental disabilities and their families was until 1992 called the Association of Retarded Citizens. Now it’s simply the Arc. Its website includes a helpful primer on “people-first language” and why it’s important.

Over a decade ago, the term mentally retarded was widely considered to be a nonjudgmental description. But it became less acceptable as children used “retard” and “retarded” as a schoolyard taunt. People with disabilities were quick to realize the word was a weapon.

“It’s been people with disabilities who have led the way in saying the word is an insult,” Mank said.

A striking example took place several years ago at an Indiana self-advocacy conference for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities. State Rep. Sheila Klinker of Lafayette was introduced to speak as chair of the Indiana Commission on Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. Before she could say a word, the audience unleashed a chorus of boos — aimed at the name of the commission.

“I think all of us were a little shocked,” Klinker recalled this week. But she understood how the audience — people with disabilities who lived independently, held down jobs and were learning to advocate for their own needs — would take offense.

“She had the grace to listen,” Mank said. “And within weeks, the name of the commission was changed.” It’s now the Indiana Commission on Developmental Disabilities.

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