Rosa’s Law or Sticks and Stones

***Reposted from Disability.gov***

“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.”

While searching the Internet recently, I came across an old article from the Ragged Edge Magazine. The author did a basic Web search for the word “blind.”  What he discovered was fascinating. From this simple search, he noticed the prevalence of the use of the word “blind” to indicate something bad. Additionally this usage was not just bad like Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” or “I lost my car keys” bad, but game-changing bad. Blind was often used to mean “oblivious” or “ignorant.”

It makes me think about other words that have been used in the past to signify something negative. For example, the word “black” was often used to signify something evil. These are not earth-shaking revelations, but they do illustrate the often fallible human frame of reference and how that framing can lead to negative stereotypes. It also makes me wonder about the growing use of the term “visually impaired.” Is the use of new language just political correctness and semantics or is it a way to get away from the often negative gut-reaction some people have to the word “blind?” On an even more frightening note, by using this language are we just running away from the issue and substituting one meaningless term for another?

Why is this issue particularly pertinent today?  Because of Senate Bill 2781, also called “Rosa’s Law,” which was introduced last fall by Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Michael Enzi (R-WY).  This legislation requires that in federal health, education and labor policy statutes the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” must be substituted with the terms “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability.” 

Because of the high prevalence of stigma, bullying and discrimination, many advocates in the disability community are eager to see a change in the language used to describe this population. On the other hand, others worry that this is a distraction; and that rather than changing wording, we should emphasize changing attitudes.

This is not the first time language has been updated. Almost every insult that young people throw back and forth on the playground was at one point accepted medical terminology for individuals with disabilities. Previously terms such as “feeble minded” and “idiot” were considered appropriate; then came the term “mentally retarded.”  People who favor a change in attitude demand to know how this latest change in language is anything more than just substituting one inadequate term for another and how it will affect the way individuals with intellectual disabilities are treated.

When Rosa’s Law was being considered by the Maryland General Assembly, Rosa Marcellino’s 13-year-old brother, Nick, testified on her behalf. He stated, “Some people say they are just words, and it’s not going to make a difference if we just change the words. Some say we shouldn’t worry about the words, just the way we treat people. But when you think about it, what you call people is how you treat them! If we change the words, maybe it’ll be the start of a new attitude towards people with intellectual disabilities. They deserve it.”

What difference does our word choice make?  When we choose a certain word, are we setting up a certain expectation based on the label or on the person’s background and baggage?  Is this something about which we should be cautious?  What kinds of negative stereotypes can we be promoting by our use of certain language? Or is the name just a symptom of the underlying problem?

Sticks and stones…what do you think?

For More Information

To read the article in the Ragged Edge Magazine visit http://www.raggededgemagazine.com/blogs/edgecentric/archives/2005/11/the_bad_blind.html.

More information about Senate Bill 2781 (Rosa’s Law) can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:s.02781:/.

Senator Barbara Mikulski’s statement on the introduction of Rosa’s Law is available by visiting http://mikulski.senate.gov/record.cfm?id=319975.

Senator Enzi’s newsletter comments on Rosa’s Law can be found at http://enzi.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?Fuseaction=NewsRoom.Newsletter&Email_id=99473400-802a-23ad-46d8-4ccfef00e351&SuppressLayouts=True.

***Reposted from Disability.gov