On Thursday, Arizona held a ceremonial signing to celebrate the passage of House Bill 2213, which officially removes the words “mental retardation” and “crippled” from the Arizona Revised Statutes. Governor Jan Brewer had signed the bill back in April and the legislation will go into effect on September 30. The word “mental retardation” will be replaced with “intellectual disability” and the word “crippled” with “physically disabled” in state statutes.
A campaign to end the “r” word initiated by the Special Olympics, has received national attention. Indeed, Special Olympics Arizona alerted Arizona lawmakers to the need to remove the “r” word from state statutes. According to Kate Fassett, government relations and business-development executive for HighGround, the lobbying firm that represents Special Olympics Arizona at the Legislature, “Arizona is the first state in the nation to remove the outdated references,” says the Arizona Republic. Other states such as New York have been changing the names of agencies and departments to use terms such as “developmental disability” and “intellectual disability” instead of “mental retardation.”
A well-established organization, the ARC, still uses the word “retarded,” ARC standing for “Association for Retarded Citizens.” The ARC’s name sounds horrible to many people now but, at the time of the organization’s creation, it was actually considered a progressive: Not too long ago, using the term “retarded” was considered a positive change. In the 1950s, the terms “moron” and “imbecile” were considered acceptable ways to describe individuals like my son Charlie, who’s autistic.
So it’s possible that, in another generation, “developmental disability” and “intellectual disability” could be seen as pejorative. Indeed, the Arizona bill’s sponsor, Rep. Cecil Ash, a Mesa Republican who is also chairman of the House’s Health and Human Services Committee, says:
Times change, and so do the politically correct words over the decades. I heard from several sources that this needed to be done. It’s a good bill.
One of those sources was Former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, whose oldest son Zachary is a Special Olympics athlete, and who mentioned the ceremonial signing (which was not publicized in advance) on his Twitter account:
“Whole family going down to support Gov Brewer’s signing of bill to eliminate the use of the ‘R’ word in AZ… pretty cool stuff!”
“Mental retardation” is still a diagnosis listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV-TR. As Washington University School of Social Work professor Paul Shattuck noted in a 2006 Pediatrics article, while the number of diagnoses of mental retardation (and of learning disabilities) declined form 1994 to 2003, diagnoses of autism rose in the same time period. I can’t say for sure but, had my son been born in a previous generation, he might well have been diagnosed with mental retardation; today, he’s considered “classically autistic.” Societal and cultural attitudes do play a role in how we label and perceive what we’re now calling “developmental/intellectual disability” as well as various psychiatric disorders. It’s possible that generations to come will find other words to refer to developmental and intellectual disabilities and even autism, as our understanding of these evolves.
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