Words matter, experts say, so remove “retardation”

By NICK STANEK

Capital News Service

LANSING – Lawmakers are considering changing laws that refer to people with intellectual disabilities by removing terms that some find offensive.

The step is part of a multi-bill package that has bipartisan support, Alan Bolter, the associate director for the Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards, said. Seven bills are in the Senate and eight are in the House.

“This is a great step in the right direction to remove stigma individuals face on a daily basis,” Bolter said. “I think it raises awareness if it just give that person a moment of pause before they use the r-word.”

The r-word is “retardation.”

Similar legislation is being considered in other states as part of a national movement to fight discrimination against people with disabilities.

“We don’t use words [in the law] other minorities are offended by,” Christy White, the director of global communication and public relations for the Special Olympics, said. “People with disabilities are minorities too…We’re not language police, we’re just trying to raise awareness.”

Activists say the word has negative connotations that do not fit the contemporary culture. Michigan lawmakers will use terms such as “developmental disability” or “intellectual disability.”

Soeren Palumbo, co-founder of Spread the Word to End the Word, said he founded the national organization because he saw how use of such language affects his sister.

“These words were causing true pain to many with intellectual disabilities, who told me and others that hearing people use the term “retard” made them feel less than human,” he said via email. “[The words] separate those without intellectual disabilities from those with intellectual disabilities, preventing those without ID from experiencing a richer and fuller experience of humanity.”

The r-word is a term people use to make fun of each other, Dohn Hoyle, the executive director of The Arc Michigan, said. “We use that term so offhandedly and so often we forget there are people who have that label and get offended by it.”

Hoyle said the word was originally used with good intentions by medical professionals but evolved over time into a word with negative connotations. He said even his organization used the word in the title for the organization which used to stand for Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC).

“We changed it in around ‘95-‘96,” he said, “Now the ‘r’ and the ‘c’ are lowercase and its just Arc.”

The Senate bills are in the health policy committee and the House bills are in the health policy committee.

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