Iowa joins national effort to curb use of word ‘retarded’
Her friend Jessica Evans nodded her head in agreement. "I'm not stupid, either," she said.
Both Des Moines women have been diagnosed with mental retardation, but that label doesn't define everything about them. And they're smart enough to know that other people shouldn't throw around the word "retarded" as an insult to mean that something or someone is dumb.
"It's very disappointing. It hurts my feelings," Holtzman said. "I don't like to be called a name. Nobody does."
The women were glad to hear that Iowa lawmakers are participating in a national effort to reduce use of the word "retarded" or "retardation." A draft bill unveiled this week at the Statehouse would replace the words with "intellectual disability" almost everywhere in state law. The bill is 70 pages long, because the wording shows up so often in laws and regulations.
The proposal is being pushed by state Rep. Lisa Heddens, an Ames Democrat who has a personal perspective on the issue. Her son, Paul, 17, has Down syndrome. He has challenges, she said, but he is just as much of a person as anyone else. "The idea of the term 'retarded,' to me, comes off as 'less than,'" she said. "That's not how I see my son."
Heddens noted that President Obama signed a bill in 2010 requiring federal agencies to stop using "retarded." At least seven other states have made the change, and others are considering it, national experts say. For now, a few references would remain in Iowa code because it would need to conform to the formal medical diagnosis, which still is "mental retardation." However, officials expect the medical terminology to change soon, too.
Holtzman, 41, and Evans, 24, don't predict the legal change would make an immediate difference in their lives. But they hope over time that other people will realize how hurtful the misuse of "retarded" can be. Their friend Graham Liston, 22, of Des Moines, said the word's disparaging use is so common that even his own family has said it in front of him. "I try not to pay attention to them," he said. "I know they're wrong."
Holtzman recalled a lesson she and her friends learned in a life-skills class. "Treat others as you want to be treated," she said. "That's the golden rule, right?"
The three friends spoke about the issue Friday during a break from a job-training class at Link Associates, a West Des Moines agency that serves people with intellectual disabilities.
Linda Dunshee, the agency's executive director, noted that decades ago advocates for the disabled urged Americans to use the phrase "mentally retarded" instead of words such as "imbecile" or "feeble-minded." But she said "retarded" needs to be discarded, because it has developed such a harsh connotation. Dunshee said no other physical condition or disability is subject to such humiliating name-calling. For example, she has diabetes, but she never hears others saying "you're so diabetic" to people they want to insult.
Dunshee sees the legislative measure as a small step toward discouraging misuse of the word.
"It will be incredibly difficult to change," she said. "You don't just hear it from kids. It's amazing how often you hear it from adults."
Dunshee said people who know someone with an intellectual disability tend to be less likely to use carelessly insulting language. That's part of the reason she invites local schools to send students on field trips to her agency, where children from the general population can connect with people who have disabilities.
Nationally, the effort is being led by Special Olympics. The group is sponsoring an "R-word" campaign, which publicizes the pain that disabled people feel from disparaging language. Stephen Corbin, a senior vice president of the national group, said the campaign has been going about three years, and it appears to be picking up steam. He said it could take several more years to make use of the word broadly unacceptable. He noted that racial epithets that used to be common still crop up occasionally, but years of social pressure have made them rare in most circles.
"Use of the N-word has been exposed as terribly demeaning, antisocial, cruel and ignorant behavior," he said. "We need to get the R-word there."
Corbin has heard some people say that kids sometimes use "retard" as a general insult without meaning to disparage people with intellectual disabilities. But he said some people used to use the "N-word" in similar ways.
Corbin said up to 2 percent of Americans have intellectual disabilities. Those include people with Down syndrome and some people with autism, plus people with a range of other conditions.
Corbin said removing the words from laws and regulations is an important symbol because it shows that the offending language is no longer officially sanctioned. The process also helps bring attention to the concerns, he said.