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Legislators pass bills to use 'intellectual disability' in regulations

David Sawyer/Flickr State Capitol 

Two bills awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature won't change any services, rights or responsibilities in state law. But to supporters, the changes are critical: They would drop the words "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from state regulations and publications.

The terms, which supporters say are outdated and offensive, would be replaced by "intellectual disability" and "person with an intellectual disability."

One bill, by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, passed unanimously in the Assembly and state Senate last week. A parallel measure by Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, also has been sent to Brown.

"As a former school teacher I can tell you that words do matter," Pavley said in a statement issued to California Watch. "The use of the 'R-word' can be very offensive to many people with intellectual disabilities and their families, and as people have become accustomed to casually using the 'R-word' as a joke or to demean someone, it's shaped the perception of and, undoubtedly, the self-worth of these individuals."

Mansoor's measure is dubbed the "Shriver R-Word Act," after the Shriver family. Eunice Kennedy Shriver was one of the early founders of the Special Olympics and a longtime advocate for the intellectually disabled.

Existing state law uses "mentally retarded" in regulations for educational and social services, commitment to state facilities, and criminal punishment.

"These are all the laws that are meant to help and support people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but they're using offensive language," said Tony Anderson, executive director of The Arc of California, which partnered with United Cerebral Palsy affiliates in the state to sponsor the Pavley bill.

If the bills are signed into law, California will join the federal government and 42 other states that have removed "retarded" from government lexicon. Replacement of the term would occur during routine revisions to state documents over the next several years.

"Mental retardation" was not always a pejorative term. It was introduced in medical texts more than a century ago, replacing words like "imbecile," "moron" and "idiot" that had developed negative connotations. Anderson said he considers "retarded" to be hate speech.

"It's often used when people are being victimized," he said. "It's attached to a long history of abuse and crime against people with disabilities that we're continuing to fight now."

"Intellectual disability" has been the preferred term among people with disabilities, their families and advocates for years. Anderson said that while the term eventually could morph into a negative one, he said it's hard to see how.

"I don't know what they're going to call people – intellectuals? What the heck, that's what the term is," he said.

Jill Heuer, director of the San Luis Obispo County Special Education Local Plan Area, said she doesn't think "intellectual disability" will carry the same stigma as "retarded." Her agency, which serves more than 4,000 special education students and supported Pavley's legislation, stopped using "mental retardation" nearly two years ago when President Barack Obama signed "Rosa's Law" to replace the term in federal regulations.

"It was very hard" for families to see their children's schools use "mental retardation," Heuer said. "Families over time have become very offended by that term."

It's one thing for school and government documents to stop using "mentally retarded," but it's another challenge to get kids to stop using the words toward one another or in slang, Anderson said. 

"That's going to take a long time," he said.

Advocates have launched public awareness campaigns like "Spread the Word to End the Word," which has received about 308,000 online pledges to stop using the term. Teachers and school administrators could help enforce that message on campus, Heuer said.

"I think when a teacher were to hear out on a playground, 'Oh, that kid's a retard,' that there would be a correction made to that," she said. "As we become more culturally aware of people and as people with intellectual disabilities are more integrated into the community, there's going to be more of an acceptance."

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that there are two bills on the subject of intellectual disabilities.

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