New York State is one of only a handful of states that has not removed the archaic terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from its laws. The federal government made the decision to leave these terms in the past in 2010. Since then most states have followed suit. Why should these words matter?
When President Obama signed "Rosa's Law," he said: "What you call people is how you treat them... If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude toward people with disabilities."
We, as a society, have been using these phrases for several decades. "Mentally retarded" was considered a medical description for people with intellectual disabilities. That means they could not learn as easily as others. The term first came into use as a less hurtful alternative to terms such as "imbecile" and others. In 1992, the American Association on Mental Deficiency officially changed its name to the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR). However, over time the R-word also became objectionable to many individuals and families. Sensitive to this changed perception, AAMR recently changed its name to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
When does a term become hurtful to the point that it warrants official action? I would submit that when a term used to describe any group in our society becomes a school-yard pejorative, we may wish to reconsider its use in our legal and official lexicon.
Of course, Rosa's Law cannot keep people from using the R-word in insulting ways. That will take time and effort. But the law lets people know how hurtful that word can be to those with intellectual disabilities. In 2008, the Special Olympics began working to stop the use of the R-word by launching the website www.r-word.org. At this site, people can pledge to stop using the word.
"Respect, value and dignity -- everyone deserves to be treated this way, including people with intellectual disabilities," says Dr. Timothy P. Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics. "Once you open your heart to people with intellectual disabilities you are going to want to do more."
Who will join me in making the pledge?
Ann Margaret Carrozza is a practicing attorney who also served as a New York State Assemblywoman. She is a regular legal contributor to TV and print media outlets. www.myelderlawattorney.com