Past Is Prologue

The Rise and Fall of ‘Mentally Retarded’

How a term that replaced bad words became one — and how to stop it from happening again

Rick Hodges
Human Parts
Published in
12 min readJul 11, 2015

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In 1910, the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-Minded Persons adopted three classifications of people we know today as intellectually disabled, as defined by a newly invented way to measure intelligence we now call the IQ test. “Morons” were the most intelligent — they had IQs between 50 and 70. “Imbeciles” with IQs between 25 and 50 were the second level. Those below 25 would remain “idiots.”

These terms, and the name of their association for that matter, did not strike these medical officers as insulting or offensive at all because, at the time, they weren’t insulting or offensive. They were simply medical terms. In fact, “moron” was a new word invented by Henry H. Goddard, a psychologist who helped devise the American version of the IQ scale and the three classifications adopted by the group.

A chart from a 1913 New York Times article about a survey counting and classifying “defective” children in New York City schools.

In 1987, the group changed its name. Years of the use of “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” as common insults had already inspired a few name changes; this time, the organization went with a progressive, respectful new term that had been introduced in the 1960s, becoming the American Association on Mental Retardation.

It took only two decades for popular culture to drag “mentally retarded” through the mud enough to prompt AAMR to change its name again. In 2007, it became the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Another group, the Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States, got around to dropping “retarded” from its name in 1992, but since it had been known as “The ARC” for many years, that group wisely made “The Arc” it’s official name, sans acronym. It won’t have to go through another name change.

“Mentally retarded,” once the respectful phrase that replaced the insults, is now the new term to hate among people with intellectual disabilities (the preferred term today) and their families…

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Rick Hodges
Human Parts

Writer & editor in the Washington, DC area, and author of works such as To Follow Elephants, winner of a Nautilus Book Award. rickhodgesauthor.com