Using the Right Word

According to some estimates, American companies spend more than a trillion dollars a year trying to market their products and shape the way that consumers perceive them. Countless hours are spent trying to find precisely the right words to describe the article they seek to promote.

The basic rules of marketing go far beyond the world of selling and buying. The way we view each other depends to a large degree on the words used to describe them. Using a derogatory term to describe another person isn’t merely bad manners; it is a very grave sin.

Among the most insensitive and hurtful expressions are “lunatic” and “mentally retarded.” Very rarely are these words used in a fair or truthful manner. In some cases they are used to portray someone who is perfectly normal, but just has different views than the person who hurled that insult. In other cases they are used to paint a very wrong picture about a person who has disabilities. While “retarded” and “lunatic” draw an image of someone who is incapacitated, individuals with developmental disabilities or mental illness can actually live very productive lives.

In October 2010, Congress passed and President Obama subsequently signed into law the “Rosa Law.” Inspired by a young girl from Maryland who has Down Syndrome, the law removes the words “mentally retarded” from most federal health, education and labor statutes and replaces it with the phrase “intellectually disabled.”

In explaining the theory behind the law, Obama quoted the girl’s 15-year-old brother, Nick Marcellino: “What you call people is how you treat them. If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude toward people with disabilities.”

Recently, Congress passed the “21st-Century Language Act of 2012,” which removes the word “lunatic” from the federal code. (Incidentally, the only member of the House of Representatives to vote against it was Louie Gohmert, a Republican Congressman from Texas, who argued that the word “lunatic” should be kept so it can be used “to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington.” This, in turn, inspired an editorial in the Texas-based Longview News-Journal to declare: “If he wants to use the word in relation to Congress, it is fine by us. But we will draw the line at comparing a person with mental illness to those in Congress. That would be truly cruel.”)

On Wednesday, New York Councilman David G. Greenfield introduced legislation that would end the use of the outdated and offensive terms “mentally retarded” and “mental retardation” and replace them with “developmentally disabled” and “developmental disability” in all official New York City publications and documents.

Greenfield correctly argues that this move would eliminate what has commonly become a derogatory taunt and schoolyard insult. Official documents would now use a more acceptable term to help foster tolerance and sensitivity for all citizens.

“The time has come to end the use of this name. As the parent of a developmentally disabled child, I congratulate Councilman Greenfield for his great work and I look forward to the passing of this bill,” Isaac Schnitzler of Hamaspik, which helped spearhead this initiative, said at the news conference announcing the measure.

Councilman Greenfield is to be commended for his efforts and we urge the members of the council to pass this bill as soon as possible.