Does terminology matter? Turns out it matters quite a lot, especially if it's about a person's intellectual disability.
This is why the U.S. Senate is considering a bill to replace the term "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" with "intellectual disability" and "individual with an intellectual disability" in federal health, education and labor policy statutes. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, introduced "Rosa's Law" on Nov. 17. Senator Mikulski's bipartisan bill would have far-reaching effects because the term is used to establish eligibility for many federal benefits and services.
The bill is very important for people with intellectual disabilities, who understand that language plays a crucial role in how they are perceived and treated in society.
Unfortunately, there is a lengthy history of oppression, mistreatment and abuse of our citizens with limited intellectual functioning. People with intellectual disabilities have been imprisoned in institutions, suffered forced sterilization and have often been - and continue to be - excluded from schools, the workplace and society at large. The medical terms that have, historically, been used to describe them (imbecile, moron, idiot, and currently, mentally retarded) have become common terms of derision and ridicule.
Sadly, the same general enlightenment that now mostly spares racial and ethnic minorities from the cruelty of pejorative words has not yet been attained as it relates to people with intellectual disabilities. It is no longer socially acceptable to mock people of African-American, Latino or Asian descent, for example. But the words "retard" and "retarded" are still widely used and accepted as an insult in our homes and schoolyards and on our movie and TV screens.
Maybe people are simply unaware that intellectual disabilities result from genetics, prenatal alcohol exposure, poor nutrition, injury, illness and other unknown causes. Or could the public at large be so callous that they don't care that people with intellectual disabilities are hurt and shamed by demeaning references? Is there fundamental disregard for the well being of people with intellectual disabilities worldwide?
Perhaps people are not aware of how children with Down syndrome in some countries are tied to their beds for years in filthy institutions (also true in the U.S. for decades until the 1970s); that an estimated 80 percent of girls and women in this country with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted; and that the testimony of crime victims - in rare instances of reporting and prosecution - often is dismissed because of intellectual disability.
We must stand up for our citizens with intellectual disabilities. Senator Mikulski's bill is a necessary step to help stop the use of degrading terminology. By introducing the word "disability" into the parlance, perhaps the global society will begin to understand the legitimacy of the condition and treat those living with it in a just and humane manner.
Peter V. Berns, a Baltimore resident, is executive director of The Arc of the United States.