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Rosa’s Law

Published December 19, 2009

Senate Proposal Would Eliminate Use of Term “Mentally Retarded”

Words hurt, and it has long been recognized that language shapes perception. So when Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) proposed Rosa’s Law, which would replace the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in federal programs, it marked significant progress for people with developmental disabilities.

Rosa’s big brother, 14-year-old Nick Marcellino, led the charge. He was angered when people referred to beloved sister Rosa, eight, as “retarded,” and decided to do something about it. Speaking before Maryland legislators, he explained, “We’re not allowed to use the words at my house, it would be just like saying a curse word. We’re also not allowed to use other words that are hurtful to minorities or people who are different.”

Now his position is reflected in legislation before the U.S. Senate. Mikulski explains that the proposed law “brings us out of the dark ages and into a world of evolved sensibilities by retiring an archaic term that equates the person with the disability and substituting it with a term that references the type of disability.”

The changed language would affect over six million adults and children with intellectual disabilities.  The term “mental retardation” is currently used in the Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act. States have led efforts to shift away from use of “mental retardation,” as have advocacy groups such as the Arc of the U.S. and Westchester Arc.

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