September 27th, 2010
02:23 PM ET

Congress eliminates the R-word

The word has rankled Sarah Palin. Using it landed Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, in hot water. And actress Jennifer Aniston got slammed by advocates for saying it in slang.

And now, it’s a step closer to elimination from the federal government language.

The House of Representatives approved a bill that eliminates the use of the words “retarded” and “retardation” in health, education and labor laws.

The bill changes the terms from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability” and “mentally retarded individual” to “individual with an intellectual disability.” This shift would make it more consistent with the language already used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Nations, and the White House.

Rosa’s Law passed in the Senate in August, and now heads to President Barack Obama’s desk. The bill was proposed by Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland.

Rosa Marcellino is a girl from Edgewater, Maryland, who has Down syndrome. She had been labeled retarded by her school - a term that her mother does not permit her children to use, according to a news release from Mikulski’s office.

Read the bill here.

“What you call people is how you treat them,” her older brother, Nick Marcellino had said. “What you call my sister is how you will treat her. If you believe she’s ‘retarded,’ it invites taunting, stigma. It invites bullying and it also invites the slammed doors of being treated with respect and dignity.”

Advocates consider the term a stinging label that is outdated and stigmatizing.

“We understand that language plays a crucial role in how people with intellectual disabilities are perceived and treated in society,” said Peter V. Berns, CEO of The Arc in a statement. “Changing how we talk about people with disabilities is a critical step in promoting and protecting their basic civil and human rights.”

The Arc, which promotes and protects rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has been advocating the use of “intellectual disability."

“We strongly believe the only 'r-word' that should be used when referring to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is ‘Respect,’” according to the website.

The Arc of the United States originated as the National Association for Retarded Children and adopted its current name in 1992, dropping the term as “pejorative, derogatory and demeaning in usage.”

The American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, a professional association working with intellectual and developmental disabilities, also dropped the word “mental retardation” from its names and titles of two flagship journals.

“The language we use when talking about disabilities in general, and intellectual disabilities in particular, has changed over time,” said Margaret A. Nygren, executive director and CEO of AAIDD in a statement. “These changes reflect a cultural shift in understanding that people with developmental and intellectual disabilities are entitled to the same dignity and human rights as every other member of society. The passage of the Rosa’s Law legislation to use the term “intellectual disabilities” within federal education, health, and labor laws is likely to have a far reaching impact on the language used in our society.”

But not everyone is embracing the shift. Critics say that changing the word is an act of political correctness, rather than any substantive change.

Christopher M. Fairman is a professor at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University and author of a book subtitled "Word Taboo and Protecting Our First Amendment Liberties” wrote in a Washington Post column earlier this year: “If interest groups want to pour resources into cleaning up unintentional insults, more power to them; we surely would benefit from greater kindness to one another. But we must not let "retard" go without a requiem. If the goal is to protect intellectually disabled individuals from put-downs and prejudice, it won't succeed. New words of insult will replace old ones.”

soundoff (1,022 Responses)
  1. Tiger

    I think our government now days definitely fits the "R" word. The one running the country, is the biggest handicap the United States has ever had. He is destroying this country more and more every day. Also anyone over the age of 30 has used the word "retard" as joke amongst each other, meaning no harm. Now days so many people are just looking for an excuse to sue anyone that is known to have money, restaurants, manufacturers, tobacco companies, fast food for making you or your kids fat, mmm, who fed it to your kids, or stuffed it in your mouth? "Didn't your parents tell you not to smoke?" You put the cigarette in your own mouth! Retarded is a good word for any government that allows these insane law suits into a court room! Oh the United States government is retarded!

    September 28, 2010 at 13:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • scooby24210

      The R word is just as hurtful as other words that are viewed as hurtful. People with disabilities are PEOPLE, they are not their disability. We ALL have disabilities in that we all have things we cannot do, just as we all have things we CAN do. A (dis)ability does not define a person. It is not who they are it is a PART of what make them the person they are.

      June 23, 2013 at 23:56 | Report abuse |
  2. Jdawg

    Are you kidding me! Aren't there WAY bigger issues that 100% of our ELECTED officials need to focus on? How many comittee members were involved in this groundbreaking "Legislation"?!

    September 28, 2010 at 13:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Dan

    This is a silly debate. There is nothing inherently derogatory about the word "retarded". Any other term could come to take on negative connotations if people use it negatively. The girls silly brother should stop attributing negativity to the word, and look to (and seek to correct) the attitudes of the people who treat his sister poorly. The word is neutral. I'm sick and tired of bleeding heart morons attempting to rob us of perfectly good language. (Think about the words "retard", "gay", "negro", "chairman", "fireman", etc. etc.) for a few of the biggest examples. Why should they be perfectly acceptable for centuries, then suddenly be viewed negatively or differently. That is ridiculous. STOP IT YOU LANGUAGE POLICE NUT CASES. I for one won't stand for it.

    September 28, 2010 at 14:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. FZM


    "The bill changes the terms from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability” and “mentally retarded individual” to “CONGRESSMAN."

    September 28, 2010 at 14:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Ron Nospam

    Now that was some really important legislation! Glad they didn’t waste any time debating anything trivial like how to fix the economy or reduce unemployment! What’s next, a revival of the perennial anti-flag burning Amendment?

    September 28, 2010 at 14:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. mslman71

    So, a different word will be picked which will ultimately become equally derogatory. Words do not have morality.

    September 28, 2010 at 15:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Austin B

    in time, even these "new" terms will be deemed "offensive"....american culture has lost the ability to come to terms with what certain things really are, and are always trying to find some euphamism to sugar-coat the realities.
    And also.....why the hell did we start naming laws by specific people's names?? as if it were some store item....i think thats in bad, bad taste, and just shows how much of a narcisistic culture we have become...

    September 28, 2010 at 15:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Austin B

    ...and I guess I should add, its not *what* a word is, its how its being used....virtually any word you can think of could be turned into a word with negative connotations or be turned into a term that's demeaning, if used in the context to do so.....people will just take this "new term" and start using it how the old ones have been so for hundreds of years....just look at South Park, they have repeatedly mocked euphamisms and PC words, and in turn that gets very quckly into the american psyche.

    September 28, 2010 at 15:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Austin B

    and I think "disability" will be the next word on the hit list of the PCers....i give it about 10-20 years

    September 28, 2010 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rachel

      It's already happened. You're supposed to say "differently abled" now. And I'm not joking or being sarcastic.

      April 19, 2016 at 17:18 | Report abuse |
  10. Aaron

    Congress has also removed derogatory terms such as "colored" and "mulatto" from use in federal statutes because they are outdated and pejorative. The "R" word is the same thing. Even the American Psychiatric Association which publishes the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is changing the term MR to intellectual disability so people won't have the diagnosis MR any longer. So for all of you stating that the term is PC you really have no clue what you are talking about as Congress does and should have the right to change terms and use updated terminology based on diagnostic criteria.

    September 28, 2010 at 17:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Randy Crawford

    It used to be people of low IQ were called idiots, morons, or imbeciles depending on the degree of their deficit. The word retarded came to be substituted as a euphemism, like gay was invented as a euphemism for being perverted, or like depression was invented as a euphemism for stock-market panic and then recession became a euphemism for depression. If we are to be so politically "correct" (actually, politically censored by overweaning bigoted babysitters) that we can't use the word retarded, we might as well start using the word "politician" do designate anyone who is stupid, perverted, censoring, and causing financial meltdowns. After all, we already know Washington is full of such retarded perverted bungling politicians right now, so let's just call them according to what is self-evident.

    September 29, 2010 at 00:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Randy Crawford

    It used to be people of low IQ were called idiots, morons, or imbeciles depending on the degree of their deficit. The word retarded came to be substituted as a euphemism, like gay was invented as a euphemism for being perverted, or like depression was invented as a euphemism for stock-market panic and then recession became a euphemism for depression. If we are to be so politically "correct" (actually, politically censored by overweaning bigoted babysitters) that we can't use the word retarded, we might as well start using the word "politician" do designate anyone who is stupid, perverted, censoring, and causing financial meltdowns. After all, we already know Washington is full of such retarded perverted bungling politicians right now, so let's just call them according to what is self-evident.

    September 29, 2010 at 00:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Greg

    now we need to eliminate the word "terrorist" and replace it with "criminal". get out of far east and use world law enforcement to round up crimals

    September 29, 2010 at 10:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. JG

    When I was young a common slur was “Jap” (as in “He Japped me,” meaning he was sneaky). That word fell by the wayside not because people stopped using the term “Japanese”. People in general simply came to the realization that the derived slur “Jap” is not acceptable.

    While laudatory in intent, I worry that the Congressional decision to remove “retardation” from bills, laws, etc., is ultimately misguided. The term “retardation” is neutral. The pejorative form is the risible “retard” (in the manner that “Japanese” got truncated to “Jap”). The way to get people to stop using the word “retard” is not by eliminating the term retardation. It’s by getting people to simply stop saying the dismissive expression “retard”.

    I am concerned that the Congressional effort to replace the word “retardation” will be interpreted by many as just one more tiresome example of political correctness, that they therefore do not need to pay heed to the change, and that the use of the form “retard” will therefore continue or be replaced by an even worse vulgarity.

    October 2, 2010 at 23:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Damie

    The retardation of the Word Police is manifest in their delusional belief that they can control social expression through legislating vocabulary changes. "Intellectually disabled" is more likely to morph into "ID" and then "IDiot" than it is to change the hearts and minds of those who are not sensitive to the feelings of the Word Police. Grow up, people.

    October 5, 2010 at 07:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RR :)

      It might not be possible to control thought and expression but this is a way to improve what is thought of a person with a diability. First of all you NEVER call a person intellectually diabled! The person always comes before their disability they do have a personality just as you do and hence they are a person with an intellectual diability. The only way ID will morph into that negative connotation is if we allow it too and if you in fact believe so and will string yourself along to those who choose to do so then you are an IDiot yourself. You want people to grow up but the reality is you should be RESPECTFUL!

      November 12, 2012 at 17:07 | Report abuse |
  16. Bill Bagwell

    Where in the constitution does Congress get the authority to alter the English language. They don't have time to build a budget as they are required to but they invite comedians to perform at hearings !!!

    Throw the bums out !!!


    October 5, 2010 at 10:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • scooby24210

      Rosa's Law does not mandate changing the entire English language! It deals ONLY with the federal government & the terminology it uses. I haven't researched it lately but the last time I did, all but 1 or 2 states had also banned the use of the word 'retarded'. Anyone in society who chooses to continue to view a person with an ID (intellectual disability) as 'retarded' may continue to do so but hopefully society will see this with the disrespect & hurt it shows & eventually the word WILL disappear from the language.

      June 24, 2013 at 00:18 | Report abuse |
  17. Dogface

    Does this mean the federal government can in fact delete the N word from the English dictionary also???

    October 5, 2010 at 22:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Rich

    This is retarded.

    October 8, 2010 at 03:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rachel

      I guess someone had to say it.

      April 19, 2016 at 17:22 | Report abuse |
  19. Chris

    This is so hard to write without profanity. We actually paid our congressional representatives while they made this 'improvement'??? Seriously??? So many important things to do and they're worried about word substitution??? But I guess this exemplifies all that they do - spend our money while making changes that have no impact on the underlying issues.

    October 13, 2010 at 05:37 | Report abuse | Reply
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  25. scooby24210

    My guess is that everyone who has posted in here, at least the ones I've read so far, have no one in their family with a cognitive/intellectual disability. If you did you would know how hurtful this word is, ESPECIALLY for a child with a disability. Children have a hard enough time often enough, fitting in. If you're a child with a disability it's that much more difficult. It's already hard enough growing up & facing social & peer pressure. We are ALL people. Someone with a disability IS a person & thus should be referred to as a 'person with a disability'. EVERYBODY has things they can or cannot do. Just because someone can't run a 4 minute mile, speak eloquently in public or do quantum physics doesn't mean they have a disability. A disability is NOT the person, it is merely a part of what makes them the PERSON with a disability that they are.

    June 24, 2013 at 00:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Anonymous A

    Whatever new name or terminology is selected WILL BECOME stigmatized because what it's referring to is NEGATIVE.

    Positive, beneficial things, conditions, etc., do not engender stigma.

    It's silly to keep changing what you call a negative condition, situation, behavior, disorder (whatever) because stigma or negative regard will ALWAYS accrete onto negative, unwanted, destructive, dangerous, sickening, repulsive behaviors, situations, conditions, etc.

    October 11, 2015 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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  28. Name*wilma

    All of you Anericans super sensitive about certain words. You are all so hypocritical! Like a Kindergarten. I am from Germany and i(we) speak our mind. God in Heaven, what happen to all of you out there

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