Tel Aviv Court Rebukes State for Official Use of Term 'Mental Retardation'

Social Affairs Ministry shifted to ‘people with developmental disabilities’ in its materials, but did not meet its 2012 promise to change the law accordingly.

Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz.
Emil Salman

The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court sharply criticized the state last week for continuing to use the term “mentally retarded” (“mefager” in Hebrew) to describe persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Then-Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon issued an official announcement in June 2012 of the shift from “mentally retarded” to “persons with developmental and mental disabilities.”

While the ministry’s own literature reflects that shift — its Division for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities was previously the Division for the Mentally Retarded — the agency did not follow up on its promise to see to it that the change was enshrined in law, and the state still uses the term “mentally retarded” in certain official documents and in court proceedings.

Ministry officials say there is agreement within the agency that the law must be changed. Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz has instructed that a legal amendment be drafted specifying that “retarded” is not to be used.

“If the courts used terms that are still legal, in a manner that is not commensurate with present-day realities, there would be an outcry about its careless use of terminology. However the law does use these hurtful terms,” Judge Oded Maor wrote in a ruling last week. The case had to do with the placement of a person with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a residential facility.

“Twenty years ago the legislature determined that the dignity of persons with disabilities must be protected and affirmed their right to participate fully in society as equals in every sphere of life, based on the principle of equality and on the recognition of the worth of every human being and of every person’s right to dignity,” Maor wrote in his ruling, adding that the shift in the language of the law derives from the same duty to uphold human dignity.”