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Seen as offensive, “defective” label for the mentally ill lives on in the federal code

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Whatever the federal government’s pluses and minuses, it is usually pretty good at avoiding language that will offend a particular group’s sensibilities.

So some Federal Register readers may find it jarring to find two agencies using the term, “mental defective,” in notices set for publication this week. The term, considered useless and derogatory by advocates for the mentally ill, surfaces in a Justice Department filing seeking to clarify definitions of people prohibited from “receiving, possessing, shipping or transporting firearms” under the 1968 Gun Control Act.

“The Department recognizes that the term ‘mental defective’ is outdated, but it is included in the statute and cannot be amended by regulation,” the notice of proposed rulemaking says.

The label also turns up in a Health and Human Services Department notice on the background check system for would-be gun buyers. Both can be found on a website that provides an advance look at Federal Register notices. They are scheduled for publication Tuesday.

The issue is not new; at a May 2007 congressional hearing, a top official with the National Alliance on Mental Illness called use of “mental defective” stigmatizing and incompatible with modern terminology employed in diagnosing and treating the mentally ill.

“We have received emails and other communications in the last few weeks from people who are incredulous that such a term would still be used in federal law,” Ronald Honberg, the alliance’s director of policy and legal affairs, said in prepared testimony at the hearing.

However defective the language may be, it remains on the federal lawbooks almost seven years later.

The two notices can be found here: https://www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection.

 

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Comments

  1. Harold A . Maio Says:
    January 5th, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    —-The issue is not new; at a May 2007 congressional hearing, a top official with the National Alliance on Mental Illness called use of “mental defective” stigmatizing and incompatible with modern terminology employed in diagnosing and treating the mentally ill.

    It is along-standing policy of NAMI to place the term “stigma” in the media. The harm they do with that policy is broad. What they are claiming with their language is that their prejudice is my “stigma.” I assure you, no one’s prejudice is my stigma, It is their prejudice to own, and hopefully overcome. See rape/stigma for the harm they are doing.

    You intend with your words, one hopes, not treating “the” mentally ill, but treating mental illnesses.

    Your words are not in quotations, so I cannot tell for sure whether they are those of NAMI or yours.

    Please, do not call anyone’s prejudice someone else’s “stigma”, no matter who makes that statement, and no matter against whom they make it. Again, see rape/stigma for why.

    I am pleased Mr. Honberg recognizes the offense in that government term. Sadly, he represents an organization that does not recognize its own linguistic prejudice. At times, NAMI seems to take pleasure in it, Schadenfreude.

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor