History of Developmental Services

The words we have used when talking about people with a developmental disability have changed over time.

In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, individuals with a developmental disability were often called "feeble-minded". Based on perceived ability, they would also be categorized as "high grades" or "low grades". By the mid-1900s, the term "mentally retarded" was used and individuals were labelled "educable", "trainable" or "custodial".

From our perspective today, these terms seem harsh, even derogatory. At the time, however, it was accepted medical terminology.

But as attitudes towards people with a developmental disability have changed with time, so, too, has the terminology. Society wanted to find words that were less stigmatizing and more sensitive. By the late 1990s, the term "developmentally disabled" was commonly used, along with "intellectual disability".

These terms did not change suddenly. They evolved over time. In every period, people used language associated with an earlier period.

Still, we can identify trends in terminology that correspond with certain timeframes.


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The words we used: