Social Security Administration Erases the “R-Word”

This week marks a great victory for people with disabilities across the United States.  The Social Security Administration (SSA) announced that it will no longer use the term “mental retardation” and will instead use “intellectual disability” in its official Listing of Impairments and other regulations. SSA started this process in January, and their decision brings us one step closer to a policy world free of the R-word.

This victory comes less than three years after President Obama signed Rosa’s Law, which substituted the stigmatizing word with the terms “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability” in federal health, education, and labor policy statutes. The thousands of advocates who have spent decades working in the disability policy field know that change like this doesn’t come quickly or easily. However, once SSA decided to make a change, the agency was able to move from the initial public notice of proposed rulemaking to the final rule in just eight months.

SSA’s decision to use modern, respectful terminology will affect millions of children and adults with intellectual disability who over the course of their lives may need Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). It’s important to remember that this change will not alter who qualifies for benefits. SSA’s use of “intellectual disability” will not change whether an applicant will qualify for benefits, nor will it change current benefits for people who originally qualified for Social Security disability or SSI benefits with a diagnosis of “mental retardation.”

SSA’s announcement is all the more remarkable because SSA takes this step voluntarily. Rosa’s Law did not include Social Security or SSI, but SSA is making this change because it’s the right thing to do. The Arc and many other disability groups commented in support of this proposed change, which SSA first proposed in January 2013.

We know how powerful words are.  As Rosa Marcellino’s brother Nick said, “What you call people is how you treat them.” Words represent you and your viewpoint, and we can all be happy that SSA is taking a step to change the words being used in their official documents to better promote the civil rights of individuals with I/DD.  The R-word isn’t just a word, it is a stigmatizing term that the disability community has been fighting against for years, and this week we are a step closer to banishing it from our government and our society.