As I discussed in a similar presentation at the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) Board Open Forum in Denver on June 1, 2001, I approach the discussion of a name change with some ambivalence. For many of us, the term mental retardation has valid and communicative meaning from a diagnostic, legal, and entitlement perspective; but we are also acutely aware that the term is stigmatizing, used all too frequently in a pejorative way, and is very painful to many individuals.

In this article, I suggest that it is time for AAMR to change its name. In the process, I would like to have readers think specifically about “what is in a name” and why it is time to move ahead and change AAMR's name. Although I suggest the name “The American Society on Intellectual Disabilities,” I also suggest that we keep the technical term mental retardation for diagnostic and entitlement purposes until such time as a better term is found and accepted (Schalock & Sheehan, 2001).

Before considering the proposed name change, let us think briefly about the context within which this discussion is occurring. If there is one word that describes this context best, it would be “change.” Indeed:

  • Our language is changing. Examples can be found in both our lexicon and the previous names of our Association. Note the various words that are used to describe the condition of mental retardation: intellectual disability, cognitive disability, cognitive developmental disability, developmental disability, and cognitive impairment. Note also the various names that AAMR has been known by since its inception in 1876: The Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble Minded Persons (1876), The American Association for the Study of the Feeble Minded (1906), The American Association on Mental Deficiency (1933), The American Association on Mental Retardation (1987).

  • Our concept of mental retardation is also changing. We have moved significantly away from considering mental retardation as an enduring trait to a more functional conception of the disablility based on an ecological (person and environment) and growth potential model.

  • Our service delivery system is changing. Since the 1980s, the focus of service delivery has been on the individualized support needs of individuals within the broader context of empowerment, inclusion, and equity.

Thus, it is reasonable in the 21st century for AAMR to adapt to this change by changing its name. Thus, the relevance of the question, “What's In a Name?” I suggest that any name—be it of a person or an organization—embodies history (our past and our lineage), our present identity, and our future goals and aspirations. Thus, in thinking about the proposed name The American Society on Intellectual Disabilities, let us consider the significance of each of the words in the proposed new name.

American

The term American reflects our history and lineage. Note that in the each of the names for AAMR listed previously, “American” has been included. Although of late we have significantly increased our international involvement, and are increasingly influencing international thought in the areas of terminology, classification, research, and publications, our ancestry is American.

Society

Should we be an organization or a society? Although the difference between the two is slight, Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary makes this distinction:

  • An organization is “a group of persons having a common interest (synonym: society).”

  • A society is “a voluntary association of individuals for common ends; an organized group working together or periodically meeting because of common interests, beliefs, or profession. It is also a community or broad grouping of people having common tradition, institutions, and collective activities and interests.” A society sounds more like what AAMR is.

Intellectual

Including “intellectual” in our name ties us both to the international community and to the intelligence construct that has historically been a principal basis for the definition of mental retardation. Although this is not the time to get into a discussion about “what is intelligence” and “the abuses of the term,” most readers are aware that recently there has been a number of attempts to clarify the intelligence construct (e.g., Carroll, 1997; Detterman, 1997; Gottfredson, 1997; Neisser et al., 1996). There is no doubt that there is consensus within “mainstream science on intelligence” about the following three points: differences in intelligence exist, they can be measured fairly, and they influence life outcomes.

Disabilities

Of the four terms in the proposed name change, disability is the one that undoubtedly has changed the most over the last decade. The new concept of disability has been incorporated into the work of AAMR (Institute of Medicine, 1991; Luckasson et al., 1992; World Health Organization, 2000). In essence, the new functional concept of disability reflects the interaction of persons with their environments, the positive potential of people, and the significant role that individualized supports play in enhancing a person's independence, productivity, and community integration. It is timely and important that the proposed name change reflects this changing conception of disability.

Thus, there is a lot in a name. There is history, identity, and future goals. The proposed name change for AAMR—The American Society on Intellectual Disabilities—is inclusive without losing our identity. It recognizes that we are a broader society than has historically been the case, but it also recognizes the historical and current role of intelligence in the condition of mental retardation. It reflects the exciting changes in the conception of disability and the international movement towards a functional definition. It also brings us into alignment with much of the international community's use of the term intellectual disabilities.

We all know, however, that change is not easy, and each solution potentially leads to other challenges and opportunities (e.g., Lower, 1999; Smith & Mitchell, 2001). To me, AAMR currently faces four opportunities regarding its name change: One is to be responsive to and supportive of our primary customers; the second is to be aligned with the international community and current thinking about disability; the third is to be clock builders and not time keepers; and the fourth is to preserve our core values while changing the way we do business (Schalock, 1998).

I do feel that it is time to change our name. Although maybe not a perfect name to some, The American Society on Intellectual Disabilities reflects our history, our present identity, and our future vision and goals. It will also allow us to continue to provide the quality interactions and products that our members and consumers throughout the world have come to expect.

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Author notes

Author: Robert L. Schalock, PhD, PO Box 285, Chewelah, WA 99109–0285. (rschalock@plix.com)