The Power of Language

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The Power of Language

By DRC-NH Legal Intern, Brianna Hankel

The words idiot, imbecile, and moron are commonly used in everyday slang, but where did they originate? The answer is from the lexicon of Henry Goddard, an early twentieth-century psychologist and eugenicist who tried to prove that intelligence, criminal behavior, and work ethic were all determined by an individual’s genetics. Goddard believed that an IQ test could identify “feebleminded” people who were dangerous and should not be allowed to reproduce.

Wooden Scrabble letter squares spelling ‘Choose Your Words”. Photo by Brett Jordan.

In 1924, the state of Virginia used Goddard’s—and other eugenicists’—theories as justification to legalize the forced sterilization of “feebleminded” individuals. At that time, Carrie Buck was a patient at Virginia’s State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. She had recently given birth to a child also deemed “feebleminded.” The head of the institution wanted her sterilized and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In one of its most infamous decisions, Buck v. Bell, the Court decided that the government could force people with disabilities to be sterilized against their will. Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes justified the ruling with his claim that, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”—a reference to Carrie Buck’s mother, Carrie herself, and Carrie’s child. The Court has never reversed the Buck decision, and it remains law today.

Seventy thousand individuals with disabilities have been sterilized in the U.S. since the Buck decision. In 1980, a New Hampshire court case known as In re Jenny N involved a 12-year-old with developmental disabilities. Her parents and doctor decided she could not manage menstruation and petitioned for a hysterectomy to sterilize her. The probate court found that Jenny’s parents had a good faith belief that the procedure was in her best interest and gave them permission to consent to the sterilization. The New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the decision, making New Hampshire one of only 17 states that allows the forced sterilization of both children and adults with disabilities. For more on these laws visit

As time progresses, so does language and the law—with the law often taking longer to catch up. The term “feebleminded” was replaced by “mental defect” in medical terminology around the 1930s. In the 1950s, parents whose children were subjected to inhumane cruelty, abuse, and neglect while institutionalized began to advocate for community-based care and access to education. The change in attitudes forced language and the law to change. “Mental defect” later became mental retardation and then just retarded. During this cultural shift in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the “r-word” was regarded as a more dignified and respectful alternative to Goddard’s words of the past.

As people with disabilities shifted out of state-run institutions into community-based settings, more accessible educational opportunities and services became available. In 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed. It took nearly two decades but, in 1990, the name of this federal civil rights law was changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the text of the law shifted to person-first language. Around this same time, the U.S. Department of Education itself shifted to person-first language to further its goals of inclusivity and respect. In 1992, the Association for Retarded Citizens changed its name to The ARC. Today, The ARC is one of the most respected national disability rights organizations.

In 2009, a campaign called “Spread the Word to End the Word” was formed. The goal was to address exclusionary language, specifically to end the use of the “r-word.” With corporate sponsorship from the Special Olympics and Best Buddies, the grassroots campaign reached millions who acknowledged the harmful use of the word. In 2010, Rosa’s Law removed the “r-word” from some federal education, health, and labor statutes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act. Named after a child with Down syndrome, Rosa’s Law demonstrates the power of language within legislative text. During the lead up to the law’s passing, Rosa’s 11-year-old brother stated,

“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.”

Three years after Rosa’s Law passed, the American Psychiatric Association dropped “mentally retarded” from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) and the Social Security Administration voluntarily removed the “r-word” from its policies. This past September, a new bill, the Words Matter Act (H.R. 8863), was introduced. The Words Matter Act is a bipartisan effort to change all remaining references of the “r-word” in federal law to “intellectual disability.” If passed, this Act will remove this outdated and harmful language from twelve additional federal laws including the National Housing Act and the Omnibus Crime Control and the Safe Streets Act of 1968.

People of the past failed to recognize that all people deserve dignity and respect and yet harmful, hurtful, and ableist words like moron, lame, and the “r-word” continue to be used by the media, our law makers, the courts, and even by our family and friends. As our commitment to inclusion evolves, so too must our language— whether it be casual slang or legal text—because the words we use to describe a community of people directly informs the policy and laws that govern them.

Brianna Hankel is a third-year law student at UNH Law where she is pursuing her JD and a certificate in health law and policy.

DRC-NH, in collaboration with the UNH Institute on Disability and the New Hampshire Council on Developmental Disabilities, distribute a quarterly RAP sheet to educate community members and policy makers about the latest research, policy, practice, and advocacy issues affecting individuals with disabilities and their families.


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