Just when I think that the earth has tilted so askew on its axis, that one person can’t make a difference in the world, something happens that proves me wrong. A few weeks ago, I was doing some preliminary research on P.L. 111-260, the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility which was signed into law on October 8. While reading the remarks by the president at the signing of this act, my belief that one person can make a difference was renewed.
In the audience that day was nine year-old Rosa Marcellino, one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans with Downs Syndrome. President Obama introduced Rosa, her brother Nick, and her parents, Paul and Nina Marcellino saying it was inspiring to have Rosa present. The president then spoke briefly about “Rosa’s Law,” which he had signed into law on October 5, 2010.
Rosa, who lives in Edgewater, Md., is the inspiration behind “Rosa’s Law,” which strikes out any mention of “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” from federal law and replaces them with “intellectual disability” and “individual with intellectual disability.”
Mental retardation is the official term used in federal and state education law. With the support of Maryland state delegate, Ted Sophocleus, Rosa worked with her parents and siblings to have the words “mentally retarded” officially removed from the health and education code in her home state of Maryland. The Maryland General Assembly passed the legislation in 2009. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) met with the Marcellino’s and promised to champion a similar bill at the federal level if Rosa and her family were successful at the state level. What became S. 2781 and known as “Rosa’s Law” began as a family effort when Rosa’s elementary school changed the coding on her education plan from “health impaired” to “mentally retarded.
President Obama acknowledged that amending the language in all federal health, education and labor laws to replace the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” with “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability,” may seem to some people like a minor change.
Saying he spoke “a lot of wisdom,” the president then quoted Rosa’s brother, Nick, who became the family spokesman, speaking at the statehouse in Annapolis and later testifying before Congress.
“What you call people is how you treat them. If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude towards people with disabilities.”
Changing federal laws to eliminate the R-word is one thing. Ending the cultural habit of insulting people with intellectual disabilities is another. Erasing “mental retardation” from the books doesn’t necessarily mean that intellectually disabled people will no longer be stigmatized. Ohio State University professor Christopher Fairman, who studies cultural taboos, points out that “retard” is just another name in the long list of terms that have been introduced, stigmatized, and then moved away from. Still, Nick Marcellino was correct when, in his testimony before the Maryland General Assembly, he also said:
“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.”
Perhaps to some, the language changes enacted through Rosa’s Law (S. 2871) are minor. Nevertheless, this law, and the effort of a little girl and her family are a significant milestone in the ongoing battle for dignity, inclusion and respect of all people with intellectual disabilities. And – my faith in the power of one person to make a difference in the world has been renewed.