What you call people is how you treat them

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The R Word: Sticks, Stones, and Rosa’s Law

The R Word: Sticks, Stones, and Rosa's Law“What you call people is how you treat them. What you call my sister is how you will treat her. If you believe she’s ‘retarded’ it invites taunting, stigma. It invites bullying and it also invites the slammed doors of being treated with respect and dignity.”
–14-year-old Nick Marcellino, Rosa’s brother, in testimony to the Maryland General Assembly

Say what you will about New Jersey. Yeah, we are called the Soprano state, and, yeah, everyone in Jersey is rumored to have an attitude. You got a problem with that? But I couldn’t be more proud of its recent legislation.

The U.S. Senate passed the bill known as Rosa’s Law in August 2010, and in September it goes before the House. Terms such as “mental retardation” and “mentally retarded” will be removed from federal education, health, and labor laws. Additionally, “a person with a disability” is preferred rather than a “disabled person.” New Jersey passed a similar law in June.

The federal government removed “feeble-minded” and replaced it with “mental retardation” over 40 years ago. It was time for a more positive change.

Senator Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., a co-sponsor of Rosa’s Law, describes its intention: “The bill is simple in nature but profound in what it will do when it is enacted. For far too long we have used hurtful words like ‘mental retardation’ or ‘MR’ in our federal statutes to refer to those living with intellectual disabilities. While the way people feel is important, the way people are treated is equally important.”

If the language you use to refer to an individual identifies them as less of a person, you have taken the first step toward what social psychologist Phil Zimbardo has described as the Lucifer Effect. When a dehumanizing term is used to represent a person or group of people, it is not simply a way of putting someone or some group down. It is the beginning of evil. This isn’t simply name-calling. We are talking about it leading to one of the darkest aspects of humanity.

Dehumanization and deindividuation is at the core of evil. It was imbedded in the Holocaust, the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War, the mass suicide of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in Guyana in 1980, the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib, and Willowbrook, the infamous state school in Staten Island for people with intellectual disabilities. The atrocities were so egregious at Willowbrook that its closing inspired the Willowbrook Consent Decree, a major contributing factor to the passage of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980. To read all, see here.

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