Harlan Still & Koch

SSA updating 'intellectual disability' language

Readers in Columbia who believe that the words that we use to describe people with disabilities matter will be interested to learn that the Social Security Administration is changing the way it refers to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Instead of the term "mental retardation," the SSA is planning to say "intellectual disability" from now on. The change reflects more modern attitudes toward using the term "retard" and its pejorative connotations.

The SSA is arguably being somewhat slow to change its language. Under a federal law passed in 2011, all federal health, education and labor agencies were required to use the term "intellectual disability" to refer to conditions such as Down syndrome and autism. Despite administering programs such as Social Security Disability benefits, the SSA was actually exempted from this legal requirement, but officials decided to do so after being asked to by advocacy groups as a sign of respect for people with intellectual disabilities. The CEO of one group called changing the terms used by SSA is necessary to improve protection of SSDI recipients' civil rights.

The SSA published the proposed rule change in the Federal Register on Jan. 28. As with most federal rule changes, the public has a 30-day period to comment on the change. It would be interesting to see if anyone speaks out in support of "mental retardation."

In the proposed rule change, the agency cited "the concerns expressed by Congress when it enacted Rosa's Law," the statute that required the updated language. The proposal noted that the phrase "mental retardation" is offensive to many people and may inaccurately describe some intellectual conditions.

Source: Disability Scoop, "Social Security Proposes Dropping 'Mental Retardation'," Michelle Diament, Jan. 29, 2013

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