Article Index

 A Brief Note Concerning Terminology

Some words once used to describe mental disabilities are now considered distasteful or offensive. Older items in this exhibit use them routinely. The imprecise chronology below shows how terminology has changed over time. Professionals continue to be concerned with using accurate and respectful nomenclature. The February 2002 issue of Mental Retardation is devoted to a symposium discussing the merits of changing its parent’s name from the American Association on Mental Retardation to the American Society on Intellectual Disabilities. Many point out that terms we now find offensive were initially benign, and that any new term will acquire a stigma as long as we devalue the individuals associated with it.

Definition of "mental retardation" by the current American Association on Mental Retardation: Mental retardation is a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social, and practical adaptive skills.

Definition of "developmental disabilities" by the current National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities: A developmental disability is a severe, chronic disability that begins any time from birth through age 21 and is expected to last for a lifetime. Developmental disabilities may be cognitive, physical, or a combination of both.

Chronology of popularly used terms


Founding of Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble Minded Persons (now the American Association on Mental Retardation or AAMR)


"Feebleminded" was further subdivided into the following groups suggesting severity:

“Idiots” (severe)

“Imbeciles” (moderate)

“ Moron ” (mild)


“Deficient” appears in literature


Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feebleminded Persons changes name to American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded


American Association for the Study of the Feebleminded changes name to the American Association on Mental Deficiency


World Health Association uses term "mental subnormality"

"Feebleminded” falls out of favor and is replaced by “mentally defective" or "mentally deficient”


“Mentally retarded” comes into use, free of stigma, and incorporates the concept of developmental rate

The National Association for Retarded Children is founded in 1950


American Association on Mental Deficiency changes its name to American Association on Mental Retardation


Some argue for replacing "mental retardation" with “intellectual disability", or "cognitive-adaptive disability.” The concept of "disability" is now a functional one stressing the importance of a person's interaction with their environment. Other terms currently used are "cognitive disability," "cognitive developmental disability," "developmental disability," and "cognitive impairment"


Scot Danforth, Steven A. Gelb, David Goode, Robert L. Schalock, J. David Smith, and others, "Symposium on "What's in a Name?", Mental Retardation, vol. 40, no. 1, (February 2002): 51-80.

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