Term for people with 'mental retardation’ changes

Decade behind English-speaking world, Israel finally upgrades its official term for those with developmental disabilities.

June 19, 2012 02:05
3 minute read.
Mentally disabled man working

Disabled worker 370. (photo credit: akim.co.il)


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While over the past decade the majority of the English-speaking world has distanced itself from the term “mental retardation,” it was only on Sunday that the Hebrew language was officially upgraded in its reference to people with intellectual and development disabilities.

In an official announcement Monday, Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon said the official term will change from “adam im pigur sichli” or a person with mental retardation, to “adam im mugbelet sichli hitpatchut” or a person with intellectual and developmental disability.

“The change in name will offer more respect to people with developmental disabilities and prevent humiliation for them,” explained the minister in an official announcement.

He added that changing the terminology would not only boost that population’s position in Israeli society but would also help to address some of the stigmas surrounding the words “pigur sichli” or retarded.

Kahlon said that since taking over the ministry more than a year ago, he has been flooded with requests from parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities asking for an alternative frame of reference than “mental retardation” because, he said, “the term is humiliating and does not reflect the reality of their children’s abilities.”

According to information provided by the ministry, in April the minister established a committee charged with researching and proposing the new terminology, and immediately after receiving its recommendations on Sunday, he instructed the ministry’s director- general Nahum Itzkovich to adopt the new phrasing.

“The new term reflects the goals of the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services,” said Kahlon. “I have no doubt that it is more appropriate and will help improve the standing of all people with disabilities.”

In explaining the new terminology, a ministry spokeswoman said that emphasizing “person with…” highlights the fact that first and foremost a person with a disability is a person in the “ordinary sense, basic and full definition of the word.” Adding the words “intellectual or developmental disability” acts as a safeguard so that such people will receive the rights, benefits and services owed to them under law, she said, adding that it will also enable them to be part of a unique community of people with general disabilities, who are recognized under the law to receive equal rights.

The ministry also pointed out that throughout the committee’s deliberations there had been some debate over the replacement terminology, with representatives of AKIM: The National Association for the Habilitation of Children and Adults with Intellectual Disabilities suggesting “intellectual impairment” or “people with special needs.” Kahlon’s committee felt these terms to be too broad and not unique to this particular sector of the population.

The official change in position comes several years after similar moves were enacted in the English-speaking world and will likely take a few more years to filter down into everyday dialogue in mainstream society.

On a global level, the change in terminology was sparked in 2001 when the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health modified and broadened the definition of a “disability.” Following this, discussions began on how language and reference impacted the place of people with disabilities, and in 2006, the American Association on Mental Retardation decided to change its name to the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Four years later, legislation known as Rosa’s Law was passed in the US formally replacing “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in all federal health, education and labor policy. Under that law, individuals with disabilities kept their rights – but the terminology was to be modified as laws and documents came up for revision.

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