Susan K. Livio
TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie today made it illegal for state laws or rules to identify anyone with a developmental or intellectual disability as “mentally retarded” by signing legislation sought by people who have felt belittled by the term.
Mental retardation was once a medical diagnostic term, but society turned it into something derogatory, said Tom Baffuto, executive director of the Arc of New Jersey. The nonprofit was founded as the Association for Retarded Citizens until people complained and it changed the name nearly 20 years ago.
Elizabeth Shea, the Arc’s assistant executive director, said the law’s passage is one step in the direction of ridding the hurtful terms from every day conversation.
“We’d like New Jersey to get to a place where you can’t use the ‘R’ word with it being inflammatory,’’ she said.
Christie said he regretted people had to wait so long to get the bill passed, and said he was proud to have signed it. “This is making sure each citizen in our state is treated with the respect they deserve … It’s their government, too,’’ he said.
The 81-page bill includes the citations in state law and regulations that have to be changed, including: “mentally retarded,” “physically handicapped,” “feeble-minded,’’ and “physically or mentally defective.” The law also applies to language involving people with mental illness, such as “the insane,” the “mentally deficient,” and “the mentally ill.”
“Words matter – it’s that simple,’’ said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), one of the bill’s sponsors and the father of a daughter with a developmental disability. “We have a community of productive, hard-working citizens…The ‘R’ word should mean respect.”
The legislation (S1982) passed in June.
Samuel Jenkins of Elizabeth, who works for the New Jersey Self-Advocacy Project, said the there is a movement to pass a federal law. He’s also participating in a training session with new employees working with people who have developmental disabilities about the impact of hurtful language.
“I am not afraid,” Jenkins said. “I will not back down from this challenge.”