Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Letter to the Editor of The New York Times

I was surprised to see a man who was allegedly abused described as "retarded" on the front page of your newspaper and in the first sentence of the related story (Lawmaker to File Suit Charging Abuse of His Disabled Son, Oct. 1, 2012)

(note to readers -- this was later changed in the online version above to "has a severe mental disability.")

I questioned your public editor on this practice, given that your style guide counsels neutral language and "respect for group preferences" when choosing descriptors.

I was told that "retarded" will continue to be used because mental retardation is the medical diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual. 

I explained that the APA has plans to change this name to intellectual development disorder in 2013 because, as it states: "Mental retardation is no longer used internationally or in U.S. federal legislation."

If we can agree that the word "retarded" has taken on the connotation of a demeaning slur, that people with intellectual disabilities made their word preference clear when supporting the Spread The Word to End The Word Campaign, and that the term mental retardation will be wiped from APA's diagnostic manual, why does The New York Times choose to cling to it?

Sincerely, Louise Kinross


They have chosen to cling to it because they are using to use APA terminology and it is not yet changed is what the public editor has said. The direct implication is that it will be changed when the APA terminology is.

I think requesting them to do it sooner given the connotations of the word and the movement to end its use sooner is in order. But you have answer to your question already.

When is the APA going to change the terminology?

Also all parents of children who fall under this terminology might want to refrain from using it even when it is expedient, and the parents should also request/demand that the term be removed from education evaluations. Many schools and appraisals still use the term. Each time the word is used, the use of it is reinforced and validated. Hopefully if falls on the wayside from disuse. Hopefully the next terms used don't go the same abusive path as have so many of the terms. Idiot, Moron, Imbecile were all terms to describe certain IQ ranges and are now well entrenched in common vernacular as insults. My guess is that this word will go the same way, and that we will need to get the support of the educational,medical, psychiatric professionals to stop using the word as a diagnostic description since historically getting such words out of common usage has not been very successful.

Hi Catherine -- thanks for your insights!

I would hope that a newspaper that is considered to be the best in the world would be proactive -- a leader -- in word use, instead of playing catch-up.

My understanding is that changes to the DSM are infrequent. Given that proposed revisions are public, as is the rationale for them, I'm not sure why The Times would choose to wait a year.

It's interesting how we describe disability vs. other illness/ characteristics.

Example: You wouldn't expect to read "She is severely cancered" or "She is terminally cancered" or "She is severely bipolared" in The Times. Why?

Why is the degree of a person's disability (or their IQ) considered public knowledge in a newspaper?

Would we ever read: "She is severely mentally ill?"

I don't think so.

How about "She is severely poor."

Or "She is mildly intelligent."

Or "She is severely obese."

Food for thought!

Note, most publications have their own style guide (as do most organizations). For example there is the Canadian Press stylebook, and guides for the government, etc... and there is also an American one, for US newspapers. Its the AP (Associated Press) style guide, which does NOT use r#tarded. See (this from 2005!) I don't know if this is the most recent (I don't actually have one on my bookshelves) But any editor worth their salt KNOWS about use of bias free language, and also KNOWS that most major newspapers follow a specific style guide. I would look into this further ... i.e., find the absolutely correct one, but I am recovering from a root canal!!!Keep us the good work and ... have you let the R#word watchdogs know about this usage? Usually spread the word to end the word is really good at getting on people's cases and putting pressure on them to apologize publicly.

Hi Nan! -- The New York Times has its own style guide -- called The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. You can purchase it from Amazon here:

Part of the guide is visible on the Amazon website, including a foreword which says the following:

"This [style manual] counsels respect for group sensibilities and preferences that have made themselves heard in the last two or three decades -- concerns, for example, of women, minorities and those with disabilities. The manual favors constructions that keep words neutral..."

Based on this criteria, I don't think routine use of the word "retarded" to describe people with intellectual disabilities fits the paper's own standards.

Unfortunately, the letter "R" notes aren't visible on the Amazon site, so I can't look up what it says specifically about the word "retarded." I do know the manual has usage rules related to describing gays and minorities.

Hope you feel better soon!!! Thanks for writing!

I think the push needs to be on the DSM definitions. That they are infrequently changed makes them the bastion of what can be used and fly in night social movements and ideas will not affect them. They deal with these issues more directly and until they change, the word will be in circulation out of necessity because a number of educational and medical organizations tie themselves to those standards. It is unreasonable to ask them to make that exception whereas that is the job of this group to set the standards so that all tied to it can make the change. Many people falling under the definition of the word are faced with reading and hearing the word describing them because they can't get services or payment without that exact term until an official change is made.

I know you think this campaign is wide spread but many not involved in it are not even aware of it. It takes an official change to get the word out of technical vocabulary. Has the NYT written about this movement? There are so many movements that I can't even keep track of them and only know about this through specialized channels due to my interest in this field. Otherwise nada. My kids, totally unaware until I brought it to their attentions, and family members too, and they are all well read.

Hi Catherine -- Thanks for your message.

In its planned revision, the APA clearly states that the term mental retardation "is not used internationally" and that the widely used term is intellectual disability.

Surely they are referring to medical use in this passage?

You make a good point about the lack of broad awareness of the Spread the Word to End The Word campaign. Thanks for writing!

The APA needs to move faster, because there are a lot of institutions, agencies, resources that are linked to their terminology, and they may EACH have to go through their systems to make changes. What's holding them up? Why are those who are not so directly and exclusively involved in those who have this diagnosis being first on board with the change, and we are expecting others to do so.

I agree that insulting use of the term needs to be addressed when it occurs, immediately, and I have done so, sorry to say with little impact. But If we want the word taken out of all of the places that go to what is considered the definitive source for this sort of terminology, we need to go right there, and they need to move faster. The NYT did change the words in that article very quickly when notified by someone that the term is socially inappropriate now. The APA still has not.