Use Respectful Language: Eliminate the "R-word"
by State Senator Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D.
Wednesday (March 3) is National "Spread the Word to End the Word" Awareness Day, offering us a rich opportunity to focus on using respectful language for persons with intellectual disabilities by eliminating the "R-word."
Our efforts were bolstered recently when an American Psychiatric Association review panel unveiled proposed revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, an influential guidebook in the mental health field. One recommended change favored by the panel is particularly overdue: eliminating all variations of the word "retarded" and replacing them with respectful language referencing persons with intellectual disabilities.
The "R-word" is extremely hurtful and demeaning to persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and its use presents significant barriers to community inclusion. State governments are recognizing this belatedly and are progressing toward the universal use of respectful language: Several states voted recently to remove the R-word from statute. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate is considering Rosa's Law, a bill to eliminate the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from federal health, education and labor laws.
Texas should not lag behind. In 2009 I authored legislation that would have required all variations of the word "R-word" to be removed from Texas statutes. Although SB 1395 was heard by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, it was never scheduled for a vote. I plan to re-file this respectful language legislation for the next Texas Legislative Session that will convene on Jan. 11.
When it comes to treating persons with respect, Texas should lead by example, and our leaders should too. Recently high-level advisors to Gov. Rick Perry and President Barack Obama were criticized deservedly for using the R-word inappropriately. This is not a partisan issue. It is a matter of human decency. Eliminating the R-word from our everyday and legal language would reflect our commitment to the ethic of respectful reciprocity, or what many of us know as the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you would like to be treated. Equally important, it also would reflect the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they would like to be treated. These rules are not only the way we should live our lives, but also are the best approach to public policy.
Sadly, removing outdated and disrespectful language in statutes and in dense psychiatric tomes can take a long time. The revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, for instance, will be the first in 10 years, and the process is not yet complete.
Fortunately, no legislation has to be passed for us to start eliminating the R-word from everyday speech. We can start immediately by talking with our friends and family and by participating in the National "Spread the Word to End the Word" Awareness Day on Wednesday.
To find out how you can help promote respectful language, visit http://www.r-word.org/. More than 70,000 persons have visited the site and pledged to support eliminating the R-word in their everyday speech.