As we have been reminded recently, language and words are important. As they are our primary form of communication with the other members of the human race, words often grow and change over time, collecting associative meaning and emotional freight beyond their literal definitions.
So I was intrigued to see that just last week, the legislature in my home state of Iowa passed a bill that removes the word “retarded” from all state laws. This bill, unanimously passed, will replace phrases such as “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” And Iowa is not alone in this action; in fact, 14 other states as well as the U.S. Congress have passed similar legislation eliminating the use of such words in state and federal health, education, and labor laws. The change will make such laws consistent with the terminology used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the White House, and the United Nations.
President Obama signed the bill in 2010, known as “Rosa’s Law,” and named for nine-year old Rosa Marcellino of Edgewater, Maryland. Rosa’s mother objected when her daughter, who has Down syndrome, was labeled as mentally retarded by the state’s individualized education program. Mrs. Marcellino, who does not allow the “r-word” in her house, took the matter to Senator Barbara Mikulski, who drafted the bill.
Behind this recent surge of legislation are organizations such as the Special Olympics, the Arc (previously known as Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States), Best Buddies International, and R-word.org. These organizations state that they do not mean to censor, but simply remove the stigma and pejorative nature of the r-word in question.
“You can’t ban terminology any more than you can ban thought,” says Dr. Stephen B. Corbin, Senior Vice President of Community Impact with the Special Olympics. “But we know that using bad language contributes to the dehumanization and stigmatization of others, which incites treating them differently.”
The term “retard” as most are familiar with today evolved from the clinical diagnostic term “mental retardation.” However, one cannot deny that the two phrases today carry completely different connotations. You don’t hear kids insulting each other by saying, “Wow, that was very mentally deficient of you.” No, they say, “Wow, that was retarded.” Similar to the evolution of “gay,” “retarded” now is associated with what is stupid, idiotic, or socially inacceptable.
But will legislation such as Rosa’s Law help change America’s perception of the intellectually disabled, or is it unnecessary regulation that simply continues the cycle of offensive language?
“All of this reflects the cycle of word taboo,” says Christopher Fairman, professor of law at Ohio State University and author of Fuck: Word Taboo and Protecting Our First Amendment Liberties. “By focusing on the word itself, you reinforce the negative connotation and actually strengthen the taboo. The focus should be on the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities. This breaks down the cultural taboo that creates word taboo in the first place.”
While I personally find the word as offensive as “gay” when not used for its literal meaning, I agree with Fairman that this legislation may not be the most effective use of Congress’s time or way to combat derogatory language. Language is a grass-roots effort; it is shaped by its users over the years. It cannot truly be legislated or mandated to mean what people don’t want it to mean. If the government full on forbade everyone from using the word “retarded,” even for just reasons, people would still use the word (and probably more often just to spite the Man). People will not change how they speak because someone tells them to; they have to understand and want to make the change on their own volition.
I don’t think this legislation is necessarily a bad thing, and hey, if it works and people stop using “retarded” recreationally then that’s great! But unfortunately, I’m a bit of a cynic, and I don’t think that a government mandate will have the effectiveness of a simple, well-reasoned discussion. Hopefully I’m wrong. What do you think?