Anthony Kennedy.
Anthony Kennedy. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/NLJ.)

Advocates for those with intellectual disabilities are applauding the U.S. Supreme Court for abandoning the term “mental retardation,” seemingly forever, in its decision in Hall v. Florida issued Tuesday.

The ruling—including the dissent—marked the first time the high court used the phrase “intellectual disability” to describe the condition formerly known by the now disfavored term “mental retardation.” As recently as 2013, the court used the term “mental retardation” in a Medicaid case, Wos v. E.M.A.

“It was a conscious decision to treat people with this condition with utmost respect and dignity,” said Margaret Nygren, executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. “The court has recognized that while the condition has not changed, the terminology has.”

Peter Berns, chief executive officer of The Arc, also saw significance in the court’s use of the new term. “In many respects, it completes a transition from outmoded language to a more modern understanding,” Berns said.

The ruling on Tuesday rejected Florida’s standard for determining whether a death-row inmate who claims to have intellectual disability could be executed. Early in the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “Previous opinions of this court have employed the term ‘mental retardation.’ This opinion uses the term ‘intellectual disability’ to describe the identical phenomenon.”

Both Nygren and Berns said the Supreme Court’s explicit change will have ramifications throughout the court system. Even as “mental retardation” fell out of favor in recent years, advocates would file legal briefs that used the old phrase so they would track the language used in prior cases—such as Atkins v. Virginia, the key precedent for the Hall case. “We didn’t want to cause confusion,” Berns said. “We wanted to change the terminology, but didn’t want to endanger someone’s life.”

Now, they said, briefs can use the phrase “intellectual disability” without hesitation.

The movement away from the term “mental retardation” has been gradual over the past two decades or so. Those with the condition and their families saw it as denigrating. Until 1992, The Arc was known as the Association for Retarded Citizens. In news releases, it now makes a point to tell reporters that The Arc is not an acronym. Similarly, the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities used to be called the American Association on Mental Retardation until it changed its name in 2007.

Political pressure and legislation have slowly succeeded in changing the names of state agencies and institutions established for those with the condition. In 2010, Congress passed “Rosa’s Law,” named after a Maryland girl whose family campaigned against the term. It replaced mental retardation with “intellectual disability” in specific federal laws.

“It was only a matter of time before the courts would follow suit,” Berns said.

Contact Tony Mauro at On Twitter: @Tonymauro.