Why Language Matters

A guide to "people-first" language for members of the media, policymakers, educators, and human service providers,
writing about people with disabilities:

In our society, descriptive words are important because of the meaning they impart. Many people think that English is such a modern, vibrant language because it can respond to innovation so well. Every day, the Wall Street Journal prints complex words representing new terms of art generated by American business and enterprise. Innovative language has become a part of our modern culture. Of course, innovation is often inconvenient. Learning to adapt to frequent changes is a challenge in today’s ever-shifting world. Sociological and technical innovation render words obsolete just when it seems we have begun to understand their meaning.

Language is similar to the physical world in the sense that accommodating the needs of persons with disabilities should be recognized and respected. For instance, some may find it inconvenient or costly to provide ramps that allow increased accessibility for persons in wheelchairs, yet we now have laws that mandate universal design features in certain architectural settings. While many would say we have not progressed far enough, mainstream society has begun taking steps to respect and accommodate the physical needs of people with disabilities. This investment has resulted in increased independence and a dramatic reevaluation of the potential for achievement by persons with physical disabilities.

Language has progressed in similar fashion. A look back through the history of terminology used by Anglo-Americans to describe other ethnic groups reveals a sequential evolution. Slang used by Anglo-Americans has largely given way to language embraced by both Anglos and people of multicultural descent. This evolution occurred as people fought for the right to determine their own identity. Today, most of us are quick to associate a speaker’s use of outdated racial slang with an outdated sense of ethnic awareness. The prolonged use of outdated slang by organizations often betrays institutionalized bigotry and a refusal to acknowledge the need for accommodation.

Within our own community, families and self-advocates of all abilities have led the debate on appropriate terminology. In response to this feedback, The Arc and The Arc of Massachusetts no longer stand for “Association for Retarded Citizens.” This is true of Massachusetts since 1997. In 2005, The Arc US Board of Directors voted to remove the words “mental retardation” from our mission statement, to be replaced with the words: "cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities." The Arc is not alone.  

In 2006, our sister organization, t
he American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR), a 130-year old association representing developmental disability professionals worldwide, changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD). AAIDD’s 50-year old professional journal, Mental Retardation” is now “Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities”.

On July 25, 2003, in a ceremony in the Oval Office, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13309, changing the name of The President's Committee on Mental Retardation to the President's Committee on People with Intellectual Disabilities.

The Arc’s move toward people-first language recognizes that the words “mentally retarded” and “the retarded” are no longer appropriate. As with other descriptive terms, the word “retarded” has come to define the person (often used as an epithet) and the term “the retarded” is disrespectful as it renders the persons and the disability equal. The Arc has not condemned use of the words “mental retardation” and we’ll continue to use the term when no other substitute is appropriate. Will this eliminate the stigma of the disability? Perhaps not, but it's part of an incremental change, being directed by families and self-advocates, that we feel is proper to embrace.

As with other terminology, the language changes we favor are largely dependent on generational usage. There are well-meaning and loving parents of past generations who still say "my retarded daughter," and they obviously mean no harm. But when well-meaning family members and other organizations use such language publicly, they damage efforts to educate others and lessen the stature of people with intellectual disabilities. The Arc does not advocate appropriate language on the grounds of political correctness; we do so out of respect for people to whom the terminology applies.

The Lifespan Institute at the University of Kansas has produced Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities, portions which have been adopted into the Associated Press Stylebook.

The Journal of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities