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Ban the 'r-word' in culture as well as legislation

BY JOE SCHUELLER | FEBRUARY 03, 2012 7:20 AM

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That's "retarded." You're a "retard." He's "mentally retarded."

Have we stooped so low as a society and culture that we are comfortable saying these things?

I'll be the first to admit that I am guilty of using that word without thinking. I bet you are guilty of it as well. It's easy for that word to sneak its way into our vernacular and to slip out from between our lips.

But the time to stand against the new de facto segregation has come and past. We need to follow our state and national leaders' vision for a society without discrimination.

There is a proposal in the Iowa Legislature that would remove the words "retarded" and "retardation" from nearly all state laws and replace them with "intellectual disability." Rep. Lisa Heddens, D-Ames, who has a son with Down syndrome, brought the bill to the floor. The action after seven other states and President Obama approved proposals that banned the use of the word "retarded" in all government documents.

Mark Harris, the director of University of Iowa Student Disability Services, supports the Legislature's efforts. "The legislation is a very good and long overdue idea," he said.

He also noted that the field psychiatry is changing its stance on the issue. The Diagnostic Statistic Manual is a guide to psychiatric diagnosis for the medical community. One proposed revision for the manual is to replace "mental retardation" with the term intellectual-development disorder. The psychiatric community has also come to terms with the fact that the term is demeaning and acts as fodder for a prejudiced cannon.

Jo Hendrickson, the director of the Realizing Educational and Career Hopes program at the University of Iowa, also believes that it is time to move forward.

"All people need to be treated with dignity and shown respect," she said. "The language we use reflects our underlying opinions, biases, misunderstandings, and lack of a full education. There's more to a word than a word. We need to continually be vigilant of any language that is derogatory of individuals and protect against further misunderstanding and show all individuals the respect that they deserve.

"I support people-first language. A person is first a person. They may have a disability or special challenges, but that should be secondary to who they are as a person."

My youngest sister, Sarah, has special needs because she is developmentally delayed. She doesn't have a specific disability that can be easily described through medical terminology. It's not Down syndrome or palsy. Nor is it Asperger's or autism, but touches of those latter conditions are evident.

The easiest way to explain it is that her mind develops at around 75 percent the rate of her actual age. She is 13 years old and a seventh-grader in real time, but socially and intellectually, she is 9 or 10 years old and in 3rd or 4th grade.

Hope still sits on the horizon. My sister is in a life-skills program at her middle school that focuses on the necessities of education first: reading, writing and speaking, basic math, computer skills, etc. Her teachers treat her and her classmates with kindness and compassion, just like any other student.

Her peers seem to accept her for who she is without difficulty. There is a dichotomy between our generation and my sister's. Somewhere along the line, a nonverbal compact was made to accept others for their differences.

It's all about equality. If we as a society have recognized that people of different races, ethnicities, religions, ideologies, sexualities, and genders are equal, why is there an exception for people with disabilities? Even if that is our true state of affairs, why are the words "gay," "bitch," and "nigga" still in our common lexicon?

"We still have a ways to go," Harris said. "We have made some progress in people being more careful with their language, but it's a word that is still tossed around far too much."

I could go on and on. Society has forgotten the words of the Declaration of Independence and Martin Luther King Jr.

"That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

"My children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Maybe we must resort to Lady Gaga for the answer.

"I'm on the right track, baby. I was born this way."


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