Ask the Doctor: The R-word

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, following a proclamation in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.  Over 178,000 people in Michigan have an intellectual and/or developmental disability (IDD).  These are a group of conditions that are usually present at birth and affect physical, intellectual and/or emotional development.
Intellectual disabilities start before a child turns 18 and affect intelligence (IQ), which means the ability to learn and problem solve.  They also affect the ability to adapt, causing problems in social and life skills.
Developmental disabilities may include intellectual, physical and/or emotional development. Some examples include Down Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), which are disorders of the nervous system; and Phenylketonuria (PKU), a disorder of metabolism.
IDDs are usually lifelong conditions.  Many IDDs have no cure, but there are treatments available.  Physical, speech and occupational therapies, diet, medications, hormones, and behavior therapy are examples of treatment that can improve symptoms.
People with and without disabilities have value and enrich our communities, and should be able to live, love, work, play, and learn together, not be kept segregated from each other.  Unfortunately, many people disrespect and make fun of people with IDDs, and there is a long history of demeaning and stigmatizing names for IDDs.
Some examples used by health care professionals starting in the 1800s include simpleton, idiot, imbecile, moron, and feeble-minded.  The word retarded came to be used for IDDs in 1895, meaning that development was delayed.  Retarded has been the most common term used in laws, medical books, etc. Unfortunately, what started off as clinical terms are now used as insults.
The R-word, and these other words, are hurtful to people with IDDs, their families and friends.  They are offensive and derogatory.  Sometimes they are purposefully used to cause pain, and sometimes we use them in ignorance. They end up causing discrimination, isolation and segregation.  They are experienced as direct or indirect bullying.  Words can destroy self-esteem and dreams.
In 2010 President Barrack Obama signed what is known as Rosa’s Law.  It replaced the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” with “intellectual disability” in federal health, education, and labor policy and literature.  In 2014 Michigan did the same.
To show your awareness of how hurtful the word is, consider making a commitment to use respectful language by taking the pledge on the R-Word website:
Take the time to educate yourself and those around you on the effects of the R-word.  Stop using the word, even as a “joke”.  It might not seem like a big deal to you, but it can make a big difference to many people who feel they can’t stand up for themselves.
For more information on programs for IDD stop by our website
And as always, if you need help, call our 24/7 hotline (800)241-4949.
Dr. Carmen McIntyre is the Chief Medical Officer at Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. If you have a question for Dr. McIntyre, please submit it to


From the Web