Changing Terms: “Mentally Retarded” to “Cognitive Disability”

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As a Special Education teacher and advocate, I was elated to hear a change in terminology from “Mentally Retarded” to “Cognitive Disability” as federal mandate for terminology.

It is our job as advocates to help eliminate ignorance on this matter by arming people with the correct information.  As an advocacy group, I hope that you take to this sensitive matter as closely as I have. Please be aware of the sensitivity of this mistake in your articles.

A special education teacher and advocate who felt passionately about the need to eliminate offensive words wrote to object to our use of the term “retarded” on a page about Progress Monitoring.

We agree about offensive words – up to a point.

If you go to our Facebook page and look at the “Likes” on the left side of the page, you will see that “Spread the Word to End the Word” is in our first five “Likes.” Search the 2010 posts on FB for the update we posted in 2010 about “Rosa’s Law.”

Rosa’s Law PUBLIC LAW 111–256—OCT. 5, 2010

This teacher’s comment was posted in response to an issue of the Special Ed Advocate newsletter that featured articles on RtI, specific learning disabilities, and progress monitoring, not disability names or legal definitions of disabilities.

*Our readers need to know what the law says, not what we want the law to say or what the law may say in the future.*

When we use the term “mental retardation” or “retarded,” we do so because these words are in the text of the federal law. To change the text when Congress has not changed the text of a law would mislead readers who rely on us to provide accurate information.

Legal Definition

The legal definition of “Child with a Disability” is:

(3) Child With A Disability.

(A) In General. The term ‘child with a disability’ means a child–

(i) with mental retardation, hearing impairments (including deafness), speech or language impairments,
‘emotional disturbance’), orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments,
or specific learning disabilities; and
(ii) who, by reason thereof needs special education and related services. 20 U.S.C. 1401(3)(A)

The legal definition of “Specific Learning Disability” in 20 U.S.C. 1401(30) includes the following:

(C) Disorders not included. Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

In “Determining the existence of a specific learning disability,” the law includes the term “mental retardation.” 34 CFR 300.309(a)(3).

We cannot change the words in a law. We expect that Congress will change these terms in the IDEA when the law is reauthorized.

Looking to the US Department of Education for Guidance

After reading this complaint, I decided to see how the US Department of Education is handling the change.

In Reports to Congress, communications with state DOEs re: grants, and other documents, the USDOE continues to use “mental retardation.”

You may want to go to the website for the US Department of Education – and type “mental retardation” into the search box. I assume the USDOE continues to use the term for the same reason we do – because this is what the law says.

Some states changed their state statutes and are using the terms “Intellectual disability” or “Cognitive disability.”

*Update – August 2017. Summary: Rosa’s Law changes references to “mental retardation” in Federal law to “intellectual disability” or “intellectual disabilities.” These final regulations implement this statutory change in applicable Department of Education regulations. Final regulations effective August 10, 2017.

*Legal Updates

IDEA 2004 – Statute and Regulations at

Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition Legal Updates at

Re: “Typos”…

We want to thank all of you for bringing any typos to our attention.  As you may know, the Wrightslaw site contains tens of thousands of documents, and millions of words, most written by two people. We spend an incredible amount of time creating new content for Wrightslaw.

It is inevitable that we will miss an occasional typo. We are grateful when readers take the time to let us know so we can fix typos.

  1. I’d like to follow up on my comment from September 2014 to note that the IDEA CFR I linked to was updated in July 2017 to use the term “intellectual disability” instead of “mental retardation.”

      • Unfortunately, the use of terms such as mild intellectual disability lead to thinking there is just a small disability when in reality, the person may need significant supports. I agree mental retardation has negative connotations, but it was a term more easily understood. Also, many (certainly not all) doctors refer to a mild intellectual disability as a learning disability which it is not.

        • To clarify, the DSM-5 diagnostic term is Intellectual Disability (ID), which can be further specified as Mild, Moderate, Severe, or Profound. This is not new, as Mental Retardation had the same specifiers in the DSM-IV. Learning disability doesn’t have a widely-agreed diagnostic meaning; different groups use the term in different ways. General Learning Disability, often simply stated as Learning Disability, is a diagnostic term equivalent to ID that is used in the UK. Some groups use learning disability to refer to what was a diagnostic category called Learning Disorders in the DSM-IV, which was consolidated into a single diagnosis of Specific Learning Disorder with specifiers in the DSM-5, but learning disorders is not a recognized term in the DSM or ICD.

        • Also, the IDEA defines Specific Learning Disability in a way that is similar to the DSM-5’s Specific Learning Disorder and expressly excludes ID, but just learning disability is not a term defined by the IDEA.

  2. Laura, you bring up an important point. You are correct that Rosa’s Law changed the references in the U.S Code (legislated law), but it did not require changes in the Code of Federal Regulations (regulatory law), which is what schools usually look at to determine compliance. For example, IDEA regulations still use the term mental retardation:

  3. The Federal government changed the formal terminology in 2010 through Rosa’s Law. All references in Federal law to mental retardation were changed to intellectual disability (across ESEA, Higher Ed Act, IDEA, etc.). All States were asked (not required) to comply with the change as well. Please see

  4. “Mental Retardation” was DSM-IV diagnostic term. DSM-5 (2013), changed it to “Intellectual Disability.” ICD-10 still uses “Mental Retardation,” but ICD-11 will change to “Intellectual Disability.”

    The law reflects official diagnostic terms and will surely be updated. However, please realize that “mentally retarded” is not inherently offensive. The offensiveness is a social connotation added over time. The original diagnostic terms, “Idiot,” “Imbecile,” and “Moron,” were neutral when introduced but became negative. “Mental Retardation” was neutral when introduced to replace them but has become negative. Eventually, “Intellectual Disability” will become negative, too.

    “Cognitive Disorders” (DSM-IV) or “Neurocognitive Disorders” (DSM-5) are an entirely different category. “Cognitive Disability” is not an official diagnostic term.

  5. What is the most updated terminology to use? Is it a Cognitive disability or an intellectual disability?

  6. Anyone who has a simple sense for people with disabilities due to Acknowledgement to once again thank you from my heart and soul

  7. Quote:
    terminology from “Mentally Retarded” to “Cognitive Disability”

    I resent that – With Tbi and Possible dysgraphia dyslexia – I suffer
    from Cognitive Disabilities.

    – Also: Chronic Allergies, Colds, Chronic Headaches, fibromyalgia, TBI, CFS, MS, Parkinsons and many other conditions as well as diseases cause “Cognitive Disabilities”.

    This will new terminoloy will only serve to confuse a lot of other
    people with conditions. We are people who work, raise kids and
    perform the way any so called normal person performs. This puts us in a catagory with your “Mentally disabled” people.

    We have good days, and days we cant think.
    I have days I can work and I am proficiant.
    I have days, where the couch and I dont separate.

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