MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
The words sound ugly to us now - idiot, moron, feebleminded. At times, not all that long ago, those were official or legal definitions for people with mental retardation. In fact, that term - mental retardation - was adopted as an improvement.
But as NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, many people are still unhappy. And the fight over language goes on.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Ask someone who has mental retardation what they think about that description? And you're likely to hear this.
THELMA GREENE: I hate that word. Mental retardation. I wish they would change that one, because it sounds so institutional, like you can't do nothing for yourself and you're depending on somebody else to do everything, from putting on all your clothes down to your shoes. And that's not right.
VICTOR ROBINSON: I never did like that word retardation or mental retardation, because everyone has called people names about that. And none of my friends did like that name or any other name, being called stupid, dumb. And it hurts a person very much.
SHAPIRO: That's Thelma Greene and Victor Robinson of Washington D.C. Sometimes it helps to have that label, mental retardation. It's a diagnosis. They get services like special education, job support and housing. But mental retardation is also used as an insult, especially its abbreviations - retarded or retard. It's become commonplace, in school, in movies and music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET IT STARTED")
BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) Everybody, everybody. Get into it. Get stupid. Get retarded. Get retarded. Get retarded. Let's get retarded (ha) -
SHAPIRO: That's the original version of the song by the Black Eyed Peas, before they cleaned it up and turned it into the better known "Let's Get it Started."
EYED PEAS: (Singing) Let's get retarded. Let's get retarded in here. Let's get retarded. Let's get retarded in here. Yeah.
ROBINSON: Some people who are kind of nasty, they would make fun of you and play at, you know, play with you and make you look like if you are a stupid person.
SHAPIRO: Victor Robinson.
ROBINSON: But a person who has a disability is not that. They are very wise on some things, and they can be very knowledgeable about some things.
SHAPIRO: Like Robinson or Nancy Ward. She's got a job working for a group of disability attorneys in Oklahoma City. She says there's a lot more to her than having that label of mental retardation.
NANCY WARD: What defines me as a person is the fact that - where I work, what I do for fun, different things like that. Not, you know, what my IQ is.
SHAPIRO: The official definition of mental retardation says it's anyone with an IQ 70 or under. But a generation ago, it used to be an IQ under 85. And there are other measures, like how well you function in the world. So it's not precise like determining your blood type. As Nancy Ward knows, there have long been attempts to replace mental retardation with something more friendly.
How about the word mentally challenged? How do you feel about that?
WARD: I think it's just another label.
SHAPIRO: Do you like the words like special?
WARD: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. I don't want to be treated any different than anybody else. I want to have, you know, the same consequences for my actions that somebody else would have.
SHAPIRO: Most people with mental retardation like Nancy Ward have mild mental retardation. Many push for change. They serve on various boards, including those for organizations of the professionals who work with people with mental retardation, like the one that used to be called the American Association on Mental Retardation. Hank Bersani is the group's president.
HANK BERSANI: We had a very odd situation about three years ago. We voted to change our name. A majority agreed we needed to change our name. Majority could not agree on what to change it to.
SHAPIRO: But they did eventually reached consensus. On January 1st, the nation's oldest group in the field got a new name.
It's changing its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. How do you like that?
I asked a group of people with developmental disabilities what they thought.
You're clapping because they changed it? Should we call you people with intellectual disabilities? Does anybody like that?
They're not so sure about the new term, intellectual disability. Lucius Mangrum says it's no better.
LUCIUS MANGRUM: When you talk about intellectual disabilities, that makes you sound like you're dumb, you know, to say that.
SHAPIRO: When I told Hank Bersani about that reaction to intellectual disability, he wasn't surprised at all.
BERSANI: Right. They said they don't like that either. And so then I say to them, well, what would you like to be called? And they usually say their first name. I'd like to be called Liz. I'd like to be called Rafael. And that's what's really important. One of the things that they are telling us in their own way is that we spend too much time thinking about them by their diagnosis.
SHAPIRO: But the term mental retardation isn't going away, not yet. Even though Bersani's groups have changed its own name, the legal definition of the disability is still mental retardation. Lucius Mangrum says words are one thing. But it's going to take more than that to make a real difference in his life.
MANGRUM: Changing the word could possibly make it better. But also, you got to change the attitudes. You know, because the attitude does not change, the word is not going to really matter. I don't look down on myself. I don't think anybody is better than me or less than me, you see. But others, they do see themselves as being better.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.