On March 21, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill that represents one more step forward in the efforts to recognize people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as equal and contributing members of our society.
Senate Bill 96 revised all Colorado state statutes that used terms such as “mentally retarded” and “mental retardation” with the more modern and less-offensive phrase “intellectual and developmental disability.”
A similar law was enacted at the federal level in 2010. “Rosa’s Law” was inspired by a young activist named Rosa Marcellino, who crusaded against the use of “the R-word” in her home state of Maryland. Rosa’s Law updated language in Federal policy to the more person-first “individual with intellectual disabilities.”
The term “mental retardation” was brought into use in the 1950s to replace older terms that were viewed as derogatory. Before that time, psychiatrists used the terms idiot, imbecile and moron as formal clinical terms to describe people with mental illness, low cognitive functioning and even criminal behavior. Today, it’s hard to imagine those words used as anything but insults.
By the 1990s, advocacy groups had similarly abandoned the newer term since it had also become a slur. Colorado now joins the ranks of the many states, organizations and medical associations that have adopted intellectual and developmental disability as the proper term.
Why all the hoopla over a simple word? Because it hurts. Monty Python’s Eric Idle might have said it best: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.” What was once a clinical term was shortened to “retard” and is commonly used as an insult or slur.
The r-word has been used to bully, exclude and treat people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as less-valued citizens. This trend has led to campaigns like “Spread the Word to End the Word,” which aim to remove the term from both official language and everyday speech.
The problem is that even as language has changed, societal perceptions have not. People with intellectual disabilities face high rates of discrimination in housing and employment. In the U.S., it’s even legal in some instances to pay people with intellectual disabilities less than minimum wage. Arguably, people with intellectual disabilities face higher levels of discrimination and social isolation than any other marginalized group.
So, cheers to the state of Colorado for cleaning up your language. We still have a long way to go. Perhaps when we see people with intellectual disabilities regularly holding public office, owning and running businesses, leading organizations and participating in our communities at the same level as their non-disabled peers, we will finally be assured that any term we use will be a term of respect and dignity.
Until then, I’m afraid words just aren’t enough.
Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.