What’s in a name?

A blog post by Rachel Turniansky, Coordinator of Special Education Services and Principal of Gesher LaTorah.

turniansky.jpgHow many of us were taught the old adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never harm me?” How long did it take us all to learn how untrue that is? Words can harm, I’d say much more than any stick or stone ever could.

This past summer, the U.S. Senate acknowledged how much words mean by passing the bill known as Rosa’s Law. Under this law terms such as “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” were removed from federal education, health and labor laws.

It may seem like a subtle difference, or a frivolous use of tax-payer money to address this kind of thing, but Senator Barbara Mikulski, D – Md., who authored Rosa’s Law, explains the need and rationale: “This bill is driven by a passion for social justice and a compassion for the human condition. We’ve done a lot to come out of the dark ages of institutionalization and exclusion when it comes to people with intellectual disabilities.”

A look back through history sees common use of terms that might seem unheard of today. “Mental retardation” was considered an improvement over terms like “feeble-minded,” ‘teachable,” or “unteachable,” “moron,” and mental defective.”  Even among those who work to serve people with disabilities there is often disagreement. Is the term “disabilities” focusing too much on what the person CAN’T do? Do they have “special needs?” Maybe we should consider highlighting the positive by stating that they have “different abilities” or “special abilities.”  

When they were originally introduced, the terms “mental retardation” or “mentally retarded” were medical terms with a specific clinical connotation; however, the pejorative forms, “retard” and “retarded” have been used widely in today’s society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, when “retard” and “retarded” are used as synonyms for “dumb” or “stupid” by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity

The words we use to describe others are more than just a label. The feelings those words carry with them have the potential to reinforce stereotypical perception, dehumanize and generate preconceived opinions. They also have the potential to support, respect and acknowledge that we, as people, are more alike than different.

Beyond the specific terms we use, using people first language encourages everyone to think of the person we are referring to, separate from their disability. Saying I know an “autistic person” implies that autism is the main characteristic of that person’s makeup. A student with a “learning difference” may find teachers more open to using accommodations and modifications to help him or her thrive, as opposed to a “learning disabled student,” who may be viewed as beyond reaching. Do you know a “special needs family,” or a family that has a member with “special needs?”

As Nick Marcellino, Rosa’s now 15 year-old brother said, "What you call people is how you treat them. If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude towards people with disabilities."


"The difference between the right word and the almost-right word 

is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

- Mark Twain


Death and life are in the power of the tongue” 

-Mishlai 18:21


CJE is an agency funded by THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. www.associated.org