Intellectual Disability: When did the terminology shift?

Have you ever wondered where the term Intellectual Disability came from? Is it a new diagnosis? As a follow up to the last blog post, Understanding Intellectual Disabilities and Learning Disabilities: Unveiling the Differences, about the difference between Learning Disability and Intellectual Disability, we’ve created a piece for you about the terminology shift. Intellectual Disability has been around for a long time, it was just called something else.

The terminology shift from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability” began gaining momentum in the late 20th century as society and the medical community sought more respectful and inclusive language to describe cognitive differences. The change aimed to reduce stigma and promote a more compassionate and accurate understanding of individuals with cognitive challenges.

However, the transition was gradual and varied across different regions and organizations. For instance:

  • Rosa’s Law (United States, 2010): In the United States, the transition gained significant traction with the passage of Rosa’s Law in 2010. The law replaced the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in various federal statutes.
  • Worldwide Adoption: The shift from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability” was not limited to the United States. International organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD) embraced the new terminology to promote global consistency and respect.
  • Global Implementation: Different countries and regions adopted the new terminology at different times, often influenced by social and cultural factors. The change aimed to create a more inclusive and sensitive portrayal of individuals with cognitive differences.

The transition to “intellectual disability” reflects a broader societal movement towards more respectful and person-centered language that emphasizes the individual’s abilities and strengths rather than focusing solely on limitations.

It’s important to note that while the terminology has evolved, the commitment to supporting individuals with cognitive challenges remains unwavering. The focus is now on creating inclusive environments and providing appropriate support to enable individuals with intellectual disabilities to lead fulfilling lives.

Questions for you

Did you know that Mental Retardation (MR) used to be a diagnosis? Are you glad that the terminology changed to Intellectual Disability? Do you feel ID is more respectful?


American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. (2010). Terminology. Home (

Rosa’s Law (United States, 2010): Public Law No: 111-256. (2010). Rosa’s Law. Text – H.R.4247 – 111th Congress (2009-2010): Keeping All Students Safe Act | | Library of Congress

World Health Organization. (2001). International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health. Geneva. International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) (

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One Response

  1. I have a developmentally disabled daughter who will be 61 in September of this year. I can remember when retarded was the only term used to describe her problem. She had seizures for most of her life . I’m pleased that the new terms have now been used for at least a generation. My husband and I never thought she would live this long. She is very healthy , even though the seizures prevented her from reaching her full potential intellectually. She’s a pleasure to be near. Her dad has since passed away , but I like to think he can see her from heaven and is very happy.

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