A parent recently called me and asked if I could help prevent the school from marking the "mental retardation" ("MR") box on her daughter's IEP (Individual Education Plan) because her daughter already qualified for IEP support under a different criteria. This mom did not want the "MR" label anywhere on the IEP because it had too many negative connotations and she thought it would lower the staff's expectations of her daughter. She is not the first person to raise such concerns and another family's battle over the use of the "MR" category in IEPs led to a bill known as "Rosa's Law," enacted in October 2010.
"Rosa's Law" requires that the phrases "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" be stricken from all federal health, education and labor laws and replaced with the phrases of "intellectual disability" or "individual with an individual disability." IEP forms were supposed to be revised to omit this category and replace it as needed with "intellectual disability". A quick call to the school revealed that a new teacher had used an old form that included the "MR" criteria and, fortunately, this concern was quickly resolved once the district's post-Rosa form was used. However, this incident is a reminder that the phrases "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" should no longer be used in a student's file or IEP. There is a good argument the words should not be used anywhere.
Despite the clear stigma attached to the use of such words, parents, children and even public figures continue to use terms such as "retarded" to negatively describe someone's actions. What they fail to realize is that the use of "retarded" or "mentally retarded" is considered a "slur" by those who have disabilities and those who love and work with persons with disabilities -- a "disability slur" if you will. Ideally, the use of the "R" word with respect to a person should be treated with as much disdain as slurs relating to race, gender and other categories.
Author's Note: Rosa's Law does not apply to all agencies. The Social Security Administration, for example, continues to use the phrase "mental retardation" as a "mental disorder" in its 2008 "blue book" that governs Social Security Benefits (see, 12.05, 112.05). However, on January 28, 2013, the Social Security Administration has proposed that its terminology be changed as well so that all references to "mental retardation" be changed to "intellectual disability." For copy of the proposed rule change, click here.