No R Word—Except At This New York State Agency

Legislators in New York are considering changing the name of a state agency currently called  the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. While many states once used the word ‘retardation’ for such an agency, it’s currently only New York and Rhode Island that still do so. This is, the June 7th New York Times reports, the second time New York legislators are considering the name change; last year, Gov. David A. Paterson had proposed to change the office’s name to the ‘Developmental Disabilities Services Office.’ As the NYT points out, some of the very people who have worked hardest to secure the rights of those labeled “retarded”‘ — including parents of developmentally disabled adults, some of whom are now middle-aged and older—are those who are blocking the proposal.

Living at a time when there’s a well-publicized campaign afoot to end the use of the ‘r-word,’ any attempts to keep a term such as ‘mental retardation’ in play may seem puzzling, if not downright irrational. The NYT article presents a brief history of terms used to describe individuals with developmental disabilities that suggests how, as knowledge and cultural attitudes about those who are ‘different’ change, so does—so must—our language. But change is easier called for than made.

The debate over erasing the term “retarded” illustrates the issues that can arise as language shifts. Terminology was important to the parents who fought on behalf of children who until the 1950s were labeled “moron” or “imbecile.” For them, the initial popularizing of the term “mentally retarded” was a victory. A once-hidden population now had a name and a state agency.

What would happen if the familiar labels changed again? “I’d worry about a new, younger congressman or legislator coming in who we’d have to re-educate,” said Joan Taylor, 84, who 40 years ago began advocating for her son, now deceased, whom she describes as “profoundly retarded.” “I don’t think it would be as effective to use the word ‘developmental disabilities.’ They wouldn’t know who we mean. I think we should call people what they are.”


But ‘what’ term to ‘call people’ has changed. As self-advocate, 63-year-old David Liscomb  a consultant and president of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State,  says, ‘“It really is upsetting to me because it’s not just a word anymore; it’s identifying who I am…….I want to be identified as a person, and I don’t want the label on buildings and I don’t want the state calling me that.”

Things were indeed different when Liscomb and Mrs. Taylor’s son (who was born in the 1960s) were born. At that time, no distinction was made between those with a ‘cognitive disability’ and those with ‘mental illness’ and individuals with both diagnoses ‘lived by the thousands in overcrowded so-called state schools supervised by psychiatrists.’ Families who chose not to institutionalize their children had to provide for their own education and services. Consequently, 


For New York’s pioneering parents, the crowning achievement was the creation in 1977 of the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, which removed care of their children from the Department of Mental Hygiene. The office’s first commissioner, Thomas Coughlin, was the parent of a child with a developmental disability.


New York—and Rhode Island—should change the name of the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities. The meanings of words aren’t set in stone, but change as people use them, and use them in new and different ways. Someday we may find ‘developmental disability’ a term we’d rather cast aside in the same dustbin as ‘feeble-minded,’ ‘cretin,’ and, yes, ‘retard.’

Photo by the author.


Duane B.
.6 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Kay L.
KayL N9 years ago

This whole trend to change words in order to be PC is self-defeating in the long run. Once the new word becomes widely accepted, people colour it with the same meaning as the word it replaced, and it becoms just as pejoritive as the original word in people's minds. Then it, too, must be replaced in order to remain PC. Why, even the term "politically correct" has now taken on negative connations of extremism....

Andrea M.
Andrea M9 years ago

I've always found the word "retarded" a little hurtful when I hear it directed toward others. I work with people in wheelchairs and who attend mental health centers, and I always say that they are disabled, although that word seems to be looked down upon. As long as words aren't used in a negative way, I guess the actual word shouldn't be an issue.

Jane J.
Jane J.9 years ago

This is part of the dumbing down of society. "Retarded" means slow, not useless or valueless. Retarded people can be quite useful and beautiful, just as retarded music is.

We need not change our language, but teach people that all people have value and not tolerate offensive/devalueing speech. I live in Ohio, which recently changed the title of their agency to omit the R word. Doctors continue to use it as a diagnoses, as they should.

What we need to teach is another R word: RESPECT. And since there will always be some who don't give others respect, we should teach our retarded citizens that they are more than what names we attach to people. We should teach them to be all that they can be and to be at peace with themselves. It is the people who look down on others who are to be pitied--because they do not think well of themselves unless they can find someone to point to to claim they're better than. Because they can cause others pain and laugh about it.

carole a.
.9 years ago

This is in the area of mental health. The last non-profit I worked for changed their wording. It didn't change their attitude to clients one bit. I found this disturbing.

Teleia P.
Teleia P9 years ago


The politically correct term is developmentally disabled.

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W9 years ago

What's the politically correct term?

Linda Mills
Linda Mills9 years ago


Ann O.
Ann O.9 years ago

It is a sad fact of life that some people are always looking for words that disparaged, insult and hurt others. No matter what we call those with mental challenges, those words will eventually find their way into the lexicon of the ignorant and belligerent. The word retard has met that fate - it is particularly attractive to those who are looking to hurt because it is short and snappy - and easy to remember. 'Developmentally disabled' on the other hand may lack that attraction and survive with it's meaning unblemished.

Alexandra B.
Alexandra B9 years ago

I think there's more serious problems to consider at the moment.