Posted by: trevormeers | January 12, 2011

Rosa’s Law

I’ve considered labeling each SW of Mingo dispatch with “funny” or “serious,” knowing the tone can swing like a weathervane. But real life is a switch-hitter that way, so the blog follows suit. And I often recall that in medieval times, the only person who could speak honestly to the king was typically the court jester, who rolled his pointed observations in the bubblewrap of comedy.

So I hope those of you kind enough to give a few minutes to these stories can live with the shifts in spirit. I truly appreciate your reading, and I hope that if I can share a laugh, I can make you think a few times along the way, too. So take note: This week is “serious.”

You may not think that you and the president of the United States make a lot of the same mistakes. But this blog is about one that almost everyone has in common with the current leader of the free world. He’s taken a big step to make up for it. I hope reading this will help everyone else start doing the same.

It started about two months into Barack Obama’s presidency, as he was telling Jay Leno about life in the White House, which includes a bowling alley. Still swimming in the euphoria of his election, Obama joked about rolling a lowly 129 in the White House lanes. Then (and you could almost hear his aides yelling in slow motion backstage, “Nooooooo!!!”) he added, “It was like Special Olympics or something.”

Maybe you're not much on campaigns, but this is an easy one to get behind: The Special Olympics' drive asking people to simply change the words they use.

Although he didn’t feel badly enough about the crack to apologize on the spot, Obama–or his aides–knew in no time that he’d screwed up big-time. Before the program even aired, Obama was on the phone from Air Force One, apologizing for the comment to Tim Shriver, scion of the famed Kennedy-Shriver Democratic clan, but more importantly to this case, chairman of the Special Olympics board. Using communication lines normally reserved for the likes of national emergencies, the president of the United States had to ask forgiveness for making a crack that’s offensive enough coming from 8-year-olds on the playground.

Shriver seized the moment to go on numerous talk shows and condemn such language—and to offer the president bowling lessons from a Detroit-area Special Olympian who has bowled three perfect games.

If you cringed when reading Obama’s comments, it’s probably because you know the feeling of letting such a comment slip. Or maybe you don’t. Not because you haven’t said such things, because almost everyone has, including me in what seems like another lifetime. But maybe you don’t know that “What did I just say?” feeling because the statements never pricked your conscience. A shocking number of adults still apparently don’t feel immediate regret, and perhaps consider it outright funny, to poke fun at their friends by saying they’re “special ed” or should be in the Special Olympics or are a “retard.”

Obama made some amends with the special needs community in October 2010 by signing Rosa’s Law, which changes all references in federal programs and documentation from “mental retardation” to “intellectual disabilities.” The change might be a subtle one, but it shifts the focus from equating the person with the disability (“They’re a retard”) to stating that the disability is one part of a person’s identity (“They’re from Iowa, have brown hair, like baseball and have an intellectual disability”).

Maybe it’s just words, you say. A waste of congressional time and taxpayer dollars in the interest of political correctness. But if you follow this blog, you know the SW Of Mingo team is a down-to-earth bunch and not exactly slaves to political fads. So I hope you’ll listen when we say that as a family dealing with intellectual disability, we urge you to consider this change of language worthwhile.

On the personal level, every utterance of these words is a jab to the heart of those who have such a disability or love someone who does. Every person with special needs represents parents who have had to radically redefine the dreams all parents have for their kids. These parents bite their lips every day when another parent complains that little Susie got an A- or brags that young Johnny is two months ahead of the development curve for 2-year-olds. Both the people with special needs and their families have had to abandon any hope of a typical life for themselves. Every disability speaks of a person who won’t quite fit in wherever they go and will always count on the kindness of others to navigate life. Is this something you want to reduce to a joke by calling your co-worker or friend a “retard” or “special” because they misfiled a document or missed their turn? I’m sure this feeling is shared by other people facing different challenges who hear jokes like “That’s just my Alzheimer’s acting up” or “What’s the matter? Did you forget your meds this morning?” It’s hard to imagine someone with an upset stomach joking, “Oh, that’s just my colon cancer acting up.” So why do so many people joke about other life-changing issues that affect the inner person?

Obama with Rosa after signing her law. (Photo from Getty Images.)

In the bigger picture, our culture would do well to abandon these words because language shapes our perceptions and actions. If we tolerate a derisive term for a group, we give ourselves tacit permission to treat these people in keeping with such a poor name. This is why only the most ignorant and hateful among us still use the infamous “N-word.”And discriminatory language creates a real chill down the spine when it comes from people in a position to, say, determine what health care your child receives. (A year after Obama’s comment to Leno, his Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called some of his health-care reform opponents “retarded.”)

Fourteen-year-old Nick Marcellino said it well while campaigning for Rosa’s Law on behalf of his 8-year-old sister Rosa, who has Downs’ Syndrome. Nick explained his quest by saying, “What you call people is how you treat them. What you call my sister is how you will treat her.”

The word “retarded” probably carried little stigma when it debuted decades ago to replace terms like “feeble-minded.” But in time, of course, any word accompanied by a lack of love and an insecure urge to put others down will become derogatory. Rosa’s Law could have established “froogle” as the new appropriate term, and in time, it could be molded into another barb we need to purge from our vocabulary.

So while words matter, the challenge runs deeper than that. That’s why I ask that if you care enough about our family to read this blog, please consider not just these words, but the underlying attitudes. Look for these terms in your conversation, and your kids’. And I’d ask you to eliminate not only these words, but any other jokes or attitudes that might be causing someone’s heart to break just a little more each time you say them. Let’s call that one Katie’s Law.



  1. Well said. I, too, am guilty of using language that is hurtful and cruel… not because of a desire to be hurtful, but out of thoughtlessness. Thank you for the reminder to be aware of my attitudes.

  2. Throughout high school I had a teacher who would get after us if we used the word “retarded” she had a son with intellectual disabilities. Honestly it wasn’t until about a year ago that i removed the word from my vocabulary. While sensitivity towards other is important it wasn’t my main motivation behind the change. As an insult or derogatory comment the word doesn’t make any sense. It makes as much sense as saying that’s Caucasian ect.. (although the stereotypes that go along with Caucasian or anyone else give more credibility to using it as a derogatory comment)… I also viewed it as an attack against the innocent and helpless. All that to say… thank you, experiences with you and your family were part of the motivation for this change.

  3. Outstanding post, sir. My mother was a (FABULOUS! THE BEST) special education teacher and fell head over heels in love with more than a few of her students. I remember as a child talking with her about Down’s Syndrome, but I’m sure we were calling it ‘mongolism’ back then. I made a comment about how all Downs kids looked alike, not really much like their parents or brothers and sisters. And I was confused about the similarities, regardless of race.

    She told me that she thought they all had the same features because that’s what God looks like and he’d made them in His image specially.

    It’s stuck with me my entire life – I feel like I’m seeing the face of God when I see a person with Downs.

    Thanks again for the beautiful writing.

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