Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Mentally retarded children?

with 6 comments

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Personally, I find it amazing that some people still use terms such as ‘mentally retarded children’. I’m also very glad when such usage is corrected as happened in the Guardian newspaper a few days ago:

A column referred to “a study of mentally retarded children” (Family under the microscope, 29 May, page 2, Family). Guardian guidelines ask writers to avoid terms that stigmatise in the realm of mental health. The authors of the US study in question – Víctor Chavira et al, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2000 – described their study as looking at the reactions of mothers to “the problem behaviors of their children with developmental disabilities”.


Yes, the inevitable however. Three in this case: one of style; one of fact; and one of opinion.


A bit of a nitpicking side issue, but can I just say that stigmatise in the realm of mental health’ is  a really clunky collection of words. A newspaper can’t come up with something a little more mellifluous than that?


This is most definitely not a nitpicking side issue: developmental disabilities are not ‘mental health’ issues. The Guardian should correct its correction and make this clear. ‘Mental health issues’ would refer to clinical conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There is a good explanation of the difference on the About Learning Disabilities website.


Hmm. Tricky. Very tricky. This is because not everyone agrees about which terms are acceptable and which aren’t. For example, a similar (although probably less toxic) term, ‘mentally handicapped’, is now widely considered unacceptable but Dominic Lawson, a newspaper columnist and father of a child with Down’s syndrome, has argued that ‘fashionable catch-all phrases’ such as ‘learning disabilities’ deny the reality of some people’s lives and can even result in less financial and social support for those who are severely affected.

I would argue that the term for someone with Down’s syndrome is just that (if it’s necessary to mention the fact), but it’s always important to take into account the views of those whose lives are directly affected by such issues.

Read Siobhain Butterworth in the Guardian on the use of the word ‘autistic’ as a term of abuse.

Use of the term ‘autistic’

Casual use of the term ‘bipolar’

Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to politically correct writing

Guide to politically correct writing


6 Responses

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  1. I think you summed up this difficult issue well in your last paragraph, Deb. As with all areas of language, as our understanding of disability continues to evolve, our language (it is to be hoped) reflects that evolution. For instance, we have, thankfully, moved beyond the use of “moron,” “imbecile,” and the like to refer to people with cognitive challenges. Some would even argue that we are all both able and disabled, depending on the situation.
    Perhaps one happy day in the future we’ll all be just people. For now, sensitivity and tact are key.

    Maggie Manning

    15/06/2010 at 6:47 pm

    • Hi, Maggie — how nice to hear from you and thank you for your kind words; the whole topic is a bit of a minefield and I step warily. Yes, wouldn’t it be lovely if people could just be people.


      15/06/2010 at 6:56 pm

  2. Society labels me disabled when I am highly capable of doing many things. Labels can have extremely negative and lifelong damaging effects on all. I have never understood the need for humans to put everybody and everything into neat little boxes as a means of classification. Instead, we should be celebrating the human capacity to adapt to change and to differences. After all, each of us is actually unique.

    Tracy Todd

    16/06/2010 at 10:57 am

    • Hi, Tracy — thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this post — I value your input very much. I couldn’t agree more about labels and how damaging they can be. We humans, unfortunately, want to pigeonhole everyone and everything and seem to feel so much happier when we believe we’ve done so. John Humphrys, a much respected BBC broadcast journalist, wrote in his book Lost for Words:

      “The experts in the field must decide whether a particular symptom — or new set of symptoms — arises often enough for a ‘new’ syndrome to be announced to the world. This gives them great power. We adopt their language, then see the world in terms of it. That is one effect. The other is that it may affect how the world sees us — sometimes with disastrous results.”

      Thanks again, Tracy.


      16/06/2010 at 11:33 am

  3. If a person is mentally restarted..he is just that Mentally retarded.!!!! I am black…some may say African American but my skin is still black..

    Stop this politically correct nonsense

    mike rodriguez

    09/08/2010 at 9:09 pm

    • Hi, Mike — thanks for taking the time to comment here. I don’t agree with you for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I would find it difficult to come up with a clear and specific definition of ‘mentally retarded’. Everyone is different, much as we like putting labels on people. Secondly, (and in my opinion, most importantly) ‘retard’ has become a much bandied about term of abuse. It’s now extremely difficult to put those pejorative associations to one side when using the same term to describe someone with, for example, learning difficulties (if a description is necessary).

      I understand the impatience with which some people react to ‘politically correct’ language. However, as I have said elsewhere, language is a very powerful tool and should be used with care. ‘Political correctness’ gets a bad press, but I think it’s simply a matter of respect, courtesy, clarity and common sense.


      10/08/2010 at 3:30 pm

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