Updating the language of disability

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By Jennifer Bogin

Language can be a powerful tool that enables human beings to convey not just information but also ideas, emotions and subtle shades of meaning. While often it is beautifully expressive and kind, it also has the potential to be hurtful. This is especially true when societal attitudes evolve faster than language.

Now, the citizens of Massachusetts can celebrate a meaningful victory in this realm. By a unanimous vote of 36-0, members of the Massachusetts State Senate approved (and then sent to the House) a bill that changes language in state laws, including replacing the outdated term “mentally retarded” with “individuals with a developmental disability” and “handicapped” with “disability.”

State legislators also addressed important issues for the disabled community in addition to language. Legislation was passed regarding standards for identifying and recruiting qualified job applicants who have disabilities. Going forward, all state employees involved in hiring decisions will be educated and trained about details of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Legislation was also passed to make public buildings and spaces accessible for safe use by people with disabilities and help to eliminate disparities in access to quality health care based on disability.

Similar changes have been moving forward, albeit slowly. In 2009, Governor Deval Patrick signed legislation that renamed the Department of Mental Retardation to the Department of Developmental Services. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed legislation requiring the federal government to replace the terms “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” with “intellectual disability” and “individual with an intellectual disability” in federal health, education and labor policy. Most federal agencies and other states already use such language. Our state’s official language was antiquated and long overdue for an update.

No one wants to be identified by negative or derogatory terms that emphasize our lesser abilities. Rather, we want to be identified by our greater abilities and by what we can contribute to society. Just like any member of an underserved or minority population, a person with a disability wants to be considered first as a person, and not with a label that society places on them, often carelessly.

The Center for Human Development is proud to be an innovator in the design and delivery of programs, services and supports for people with disabilities. Every day we provide activities, access and advocacy to children and adults who have a disability, for adults raising a child with a disability and for anyone who cares deeply about someone who has a disability. For example, our Disability Resources program provides adaptive sports and recreational opportunities for children and adults with physical disabilities. Our Meadows Home program provides safe and structured residential living for adults with developmental disabilities. Our Adult Day Health program enables adults with a range of physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities to socialize and be active with peers in supervised, stimulating and caring environments.

It is critically important that our representatives in the legislature have people with disabilities constantly on their radar, so it was wonderful to learn about actions taken by the Senate to make changes to improve the lives of people impacted by disabilities. Things sometimes take a long time to get through our legislative process, but CHD applauds the Senate for bringing these important issues up to date. In particular, CHD is thrilled that official state language will now more clearly reflect how we already treat individuals in the Commonwealth.

Language is not static; it changes with impetus from society. In this case, the change is entirely positive.

Jennifer Bogin is vice president of Disability and Elder services for the Center for Human Development.

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