A Girl and a Word

“A Girl and a Word” was written by Laura Linn for the Spring 2011 issue of Teaching Tolerance magazine. 
Laura Linn
Grade Level

Nine-year old Rosa Marcellino did not know much about the history of the word “retarded.” She just knew that she didn’t like it.

But Rosa has Down syndrome, so her school in Edgewater, Md. labeled her as “mentally retarded.”

That did not sit well with Rosa’s family.

“We’re not allowed to use the words [mentally retarded] at my house,” says her brother, Nick, 14. “It would be just like saying a curse word. We’re also not allowed to use other words that are hurtful.”

Rosa’s family worked to pass a law to stop schools from using “mentally retarded” on official records. Rosa’s mom, Nina, met with one of Maryland’s U.S. senators. Rosa’s sisters Gigi, 12, and Maddie, 10, got petitions signed. Nick spoke in front of Maryland’s General Assembly.

Last October, the Marcellino family’s hard work paid off. President Barack Obama signed “Rosa’s Law.” It keeps the phrase “mentally retarded” off official documents. During the law-signing ceremony President Obama quoted Nick. “What you call people is how you treat them,” he said. “If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude toward people with disabilities.”

Schools have been using the phrase “mentally retarded” for a long time. The term first came into use in the late 1800s. “Mentally retarded” was a medical description for people with intellectual disabilities. That means they could not learn as easily as others. At first, the phrase was not considered hurtful. However, over time the word “retarded” became an insult.

Of course, Rosa’s Law cannot keep people from using “retarded” in insulting ways. That will take time and effort. But the law lets people know how hurtful that word can be to those with intellectual disabilities. In 2008, the Special Olympics began working to stop the use of the “r-word” by launching the website www.r-word.org. At this site, people can pledge to stop using the r-word.

“Respect, value and dignity—everyone deserves to be treated this way, including people with intellectual disabilities,” says Dr. Timothy P. Shriver, chairman and CEO of Special Olympics. “Once you open your heart to people with intellectual disabilities you are going to want to do more.”

Copyright © Teaching Tolerance.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Rosa’s brother Nick says his family does not use the term “mentally retarded” in their house. What reason does
    he give?
    He says it is similar to a curse word, and they do not use words that are hurtful in their house.
  2. Question
    A petition is a document signed by a large number of people and given to someone in authority to try to change
    something. Rosa’s family asked people to sign petitions. Her brother spoke to their state’s government. Why did
    they do these things?
    They did these things to stop schools from using “mentally retarded” on official records.
  3. Question
    What is Rosa’s Law?
    Rosa’s Law says “mentally retarded” cannot be used on official documents.
  4. Question
    Dignity is the belief that you have value or worth. You are important. How is this word related to Rosa’s Law?
    Everyone deserves to feel valued and like someone who matters. Rosa’s Law is a step toward making sure people with
    intellectual disabilities feel this way, too.
Reveal Answers
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