Bipartisan Senate bill aims to take 'retarded' out of federal lexicon

Senators are preparing to eliminate all references in federal law to the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded individual.” 

Rosa’s Law, which will be marked up on Wednesday, would replace those terms with “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability.”

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Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) introduced the bill last November after promising a constituent she would act if the Maryland legislature passed a similar law. The Maryland law passed unanimously, and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed it into law last year.

The bill is named after Rosa Marcellino, who has an intellectual disability and whose family was instrumental in passing the Maryland law.

It will be marked up in the Senate Health, Education and Pensions (HELP) Committee this week and is considered non-controversial legislation.

Attention to the word "retard's" hurtful consequences has taken off in recent years, thanks in part to the outspoken former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose son Trig has Down syndrome. Palin called for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to be fired earlier this year after he called liberal healthcare activists “f-----g retarded,” but she has been less forceful when conservatives such as talk radio show Rush Limbaugh have used the term.

Rosa’s Law would benefit all children “who are labeled, stigmatized, and bear a burden the rest of their lives because of the language we use in the law books,” Mikulski said in her floor statement when she introduced the bill.

“It is a much needed change in the law that is fully deserving of our support,” said co-sponsor Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), who followed Mikulski on the floor.

Rosa’s Law has 42 bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate, including health committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The House version, introduced by Rep. Michael McMahon (D-N.Y.), has 30 co-sponsors.

"This bill, as I can assure all who might be concerned, will not expand nor diminish services, rights or educational opportunities,” Mikulski said.

And the American Psychological Association, which pays special attention to how mental conditions are named and described, has no issues with the bill either.

“APA has no concerns with this and most disability-related language has changed from mental retardation to the more PC [politically correct]  ‘intellectual disability’,” Anju Khubchandani, director of the APA’s Office on Disability Issues, said via e-mail.

Khubchandani pointed out the APA’s Division on Mental Retardation, which connects experts in that field, has been renamed to Division on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

“However,” he wrote, “APA does not have an official endorsement one way or the other.”

Asked about the bill’s prospects on the Senate floor, a Mikulski spokeswoman said: “We’re currently focused on passing the bill out of committee. We’ll consult leadership after next Wednesday and hope that the strong general, and bipartisan, support will support our case to move to final passage.”