The offensive term “mentally retarded” would be replaced with “intellectual disability” in Nebraska’s laws, under LB 343. The Health and Human Services Committee listened to public testimony Feb. 20 at the hearing for the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln.
In his opening statement, Coash told the committee that it’s time to update the language that was once used by the medical community.
“If we didn’t do this from time to time, our statutes would be full of the words ‘idiot’, ‘moron’ and ‘imbecile,’” he said. “The word ‘retardation’ has also been hijacked by our slang.”
Coash said it is important in language to put the person before the intellectual or developmental disability, when the description is relevant, so as not to define the person by an impairment, saying “a person with an intellectual disability” instead of “an intellectually disabled person.”
Proponent Haley Waggoner of the Nebraska Youth Leadership Council said the word “retard” is a powerful slur.
“In high school, I was called that name and I’ve never forgotten it,” Waggoner said. “This will show people in Nebraska that this language is not acceptable.”
Jodi Fenner, director of the Department of Health and Human Services Division of Developmental Disabilities, said often people who use the derogatory R-word don’t understand how hurtful it is.
Proponent Lynn Redding, who has a developmental disability, said the word had a profound negative impact on her life in high school.
“Everyday, I was bullied. Every day, I was called a ‘retard,’” she said.
Redding said she was shoved against lockers all the time and the bullying got so bad that she had to transfer schools.
“It’s awfully difficult to improve the image of people with intellectual disabilities and society’s assumptions about them when our law relies on those labels,” she said.
Coash said bullying is hard to combat but the overdue terminology change is a step forward.
“Changing these words is not going to stop the bullying. It’s not going to stop hurtful people from doing hurtful things,” he said. “But it will show that the state has [people with disabilities’] back.”
The federal government and 44 other states have already replaced “mentally retarded” with “intellectual disability” in their statutes.