In a setting where it is important to minimise social offense, which words can be used to denote mentally retarded individuals?

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    Mental retardation is not often used in English as it may cause offence. A frequent substitute term is learning disability.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 11:59
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    @z7sg: That's what I meant. Mental retardation is mostly used when discussing the medical condition, not political ideas.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:04
  • Sure I understand, I just thought it was worth noting as ordinarily this term wouldn't be used, particularly in the UK. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_retardation#United_Kingdom
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:09

4 Answers 4


"Behindert" is perfectly fine.

It's often good to qualify the kind of handicap by saying "geistig behindert" or "körperlich behindert" (in your case the first). If you don't and there is no further indication, I'd say most people assume the former which might be incorrect.

  • Thanks. I was suspicious about that "geistig behindert", since my dictionary translated it to "mentally retarded".
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 11:51
  • "retarded" seems fine too. I think I'd use "disabled" though.
    – musiKk
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 11:57
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    @Tim Beware that some people (especially jounger people) may use "behindert" to call smb. names.
    – FUZxxl
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:00
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    @FUZxxl: That's right but it's also true for a lot of other words that are alright in other contexts (e.g. gay). The thing is I don't know of any German word that has the same essence. You could say "beeinträchtigt" or "geschädigt" but I think they are slightly weaker.
    – musiKk
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:03
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    Geschädigt sounds much more like injured. A nice reference for this answer would be: Allgemeiner Behindertenverband e.V. Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 12:07

The special term for this is mentale Retardierung (that is what a physician would use). But most people use geistig behindert, mental beeinträchtigt or geistig zurückgeblieben. Also gehandicapt is possible, but colloquial. kognitiv beeinträchtigt or kognitiv behindert is possible, but is not used very often.

During my education as what I would translate to social assistant we had to call disabled people of every kind sozial benachteiligt. This sounds a bit odd for me, but this seems to be the political correct way to avoid everything that could have an insulting meaning.

Depending on the cause of mental retardation there are also other terms possible. fzwo's suggestion entwicklungsverzögert is only appopriate if the cause lies in a delayed child developement. If you got injured and are disabled because of that, this term is not used. If the intelligence (IQ) is reduced you can say minderbegabt. A person who has difficulties in learning, i.e. somebody with dyslexia, you call lernbehindert or lernschwach.

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    Saying sozial benachteiligt is rather odd indeed. To me it sounds as if it's simply the society's fault that mentally retarded people are "benachteiligt". (I'm not denying that society has a part in this!) Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 12:39
  • It's weird that you should use "benachteiligt" and not "behindert" where even officially the word "behindert" is used as for example in "Schwerbehindertenausweis" or "Schwerbehindertenvertretung" or "Behindertentoilette". I would use the appropriate and correct term where necessary. Commented Jul 15, 2023 at 18:38

(Geistig) behindert is the correct term but somewhat blunt. Be aware that, as with "retarded", it is also used as an insult. Wikipedia says the correct medical term is mentale Retardierung, but nobody uses that.

Maybe it'll go the same way Idiot has gone in both English and German: From a diagnosis to a pure insult. Unlike English, German doesn't have a widely-accepted PC substitute for geistig behindert (yet?).

You might sometimes hear entwicklungsverzögert for mentally retarded children, though that might have slightly different meaning.

  • Thanks. Could entwicklungsverzögert also refer to non-mental handicaps?
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 16:44
  • @Tim I've never heard it used for motoric disabilities.
    – fzwo
    Commented Jun 2, 2011 at 16:55
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    @Tim: It can, but depends on the cause. A child who doesn't walk as soon as other kids may also be called "entwicklungsverzögert". But a child who got injured and can't walk anymore because of this, is not "entwicklungsverzögert", because the cause not its developement. Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 11:30
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    +1 for correctly describing "behindert" as blunt and noting that there is no alternative.
    – user568
    Commented Jul 8, 2011 at 13:13

Most people don't care so much about what is politically correct an use "geistig behindert". When it comes to being involved in any way, e.g. personally or as a family member, people tend to use phrases that would not point to the fact, like "beeinträchtigt" or even only "anders". In professional contexts we place emphasis on the eductional needs with phrases like "Mensch mit einer Behinderung" or "jemand hat Förderbedarf im Bereich geistige Entwicklung".

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