by Eric Pudalov, Community Events Coordinator
In January of 2010, President Barack Obama signed an act known as Rosa’s Law, which officially changed references in federal law from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability,” as well as rewording “mentally retarded individual” to “individual with an intellectual disability.”
Rosa’s Law, according to AllVoices.com, reproduces a law recently adopted in Maryland. It is named for Rosa Marcellino, a nine-year-old girl with Down Syndrome; she and her family combined efforts with a state representative to pass the law in the Maryland General Assembly.
Some might ask, “How does changing the wording of a law change a disability or the perception of it?” While the condition itself doesn’t change, the wording can make a world of difference in perception.
Think of some of the other words that we no longer use (or are now considered offensive) in polite company. The “N-word,” for instance, was once so common that it was hardly considered a disparaging term. The same could be applied to words like “cripple,” referring to those with physical limitations, “Oriental,” referring to people of Asian descent, “redneck,” implying an ignorant white person, “Pedro,” referring to anyone of Latin-American descent, “Hymie,” referring to someone Jewish, and “queer,” referring to homosexuals (male or female).
Oddly enough, at one time, these words were all commonplace. Of course, even today, people still use them, usually out of ignorance; in some cases, of course, people refer to themselves using slurs, in an effort to “take back” the terms.
In ‘I Just Didn’t Know’: The Power of Language, guest blogger Julie Hertzog, Director of the PACER National Center for Bullying Prevention, talks about the use of such words, especially by children and teenagers, and the impact they have on those they target (as well as the casual attitude some people adopt toward using them). In addition to the “R-word” (i.e. “retarded”), she discusses the term “spaz,” which children and teens often use toward peers who are uncoordinated.
Unfortunately, the above name also targets those with physical disabilities, as Jonna, a girl on PACER’s advisory board, points out. Jonna, who has a six-year-old sister with severe physical disabilities, created a video to express just how cruel such words can be, and said that she refuses to use them in her daily speech (specifically replacing the above term with “the SP word”). While it may be saddening to read real-life stories of people who have been affected by such hurtful words, it’s also encouraging and heartwarming to see steps being made toward change.
The fact that the use of the “R-word” is being stricken from federal law is a huge step forward. Of course, it is one thing to change a law; it’s another to change people’s perceptions and habits.
As one user commented on Allvoices.com, “I only wish the signing into law of ‘Rosa’s Law’ would really change the perception so many have of individuals with disabilities…seen and unseen. But, as my grandmother told me, ‘If wishes were fishes, we would all be fishermen’.”
The Duchess of Abrantes once said, “Prejudice squints when it looks, and lies when it talks.” While various readers may interpret this differently, I believe that its message is clear: we can all do better to open our eyes a bit wider, figuratively speaking, and breathe the truth in our speech.