On October 5, 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation that calls for changes in terminology dealing with one category of people with disabilities in federal educational, health, and labor policies. Phrases such as “mental retardation” and referring to people with what are now called intellectual disabilities as “mentally retarded” have long been criticized by disability advocate groups, as the terms can be hurtful, derogatory, and they also carry a great deal of negative stigma.
In federal policy, “mentally retarded” will be replaced with “intellectual disability.” Instead of referring to someone as “mentally retarded” federal policy will be written to use more people-first wording such as “person with an intellectual disability.” The changes will take place gradually over several years, although many state and local agencies have already changed the phrasing in their own policies. School systems across the country have replaced “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in the IEP process for students with special needs. The Special Olympics has had a campaign to end use of the “R-Word” for several years, and finally it seems that advocates calling for more dignified terminology to be used are making progress.
The legislation signed by President Barack Obama, called Rosa’s Law, was passed unanimously on September 22 in the House of Representatives and had previously been passed in the Senate in August. Currently there are over 6 million children and adults in the United States who have been diagnosed with intellectual disabilities, and while the lexicon used in policy will changed, there are no current plans to change any of the services these people receive.
Rosa’s Law was named for a nine year old Maryland girl named Rosa Marcellino who has Down syndrome. Rosa’s mother, Nina, began to champion for legislation to end using terms such as mentally retarded when she learned that Rosa was labeled under the category of mentally retarded in her school division. Nina was one of the many people who felt that it was derogatory to call someone “retarded” and didn’t allow the use of the word in her home. In testimony before Maryland lawmakers, Rosa’s older brother Nick said, “We’re not allowed to use the words at my house, it would be just like saying a curse word.”
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is our federal government’s law regarding special education. IDEA defines intellectual disability as “…significantly sub-average general intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.” When a child is going through the eligibility process for receiving special education services, a great deal of testing, data collection, and observations are completed. The two main areas considered when looking at possible intellectual disabilities are intellectual function and adaptive skills areas, as a weakness in only one of those areas is not enough to consider someone to have an ID. The intellectual functioning is generally measured through the use of an IQ test, where a score of 70-75 could indicate impairment in intellectual functioning. Adaptive skills are those skills that are necessary for daily life, such as communication, self-care skills, and social skills.
Rosa’s Law to End Term “Mentally Retarded”, ABC News