Thursday, September 15, 2011

Michelle Bachmann's use of 'retardation' irks disability community


Presidential candidate Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) is catching flak from the disabilities community for using the word "retardation" just after upsetting medical experts with her comments about a childhood vaccine in Monday's debate.

In a follow-up interview Sept. 13 on TODAY, she told Matt Lauer that a mother came up to her in tears following the debate and told Bachmann that her daughter suffered from "mental retardation" after getting the HPV vaccine.

The controversy first brewed during the Republican Presidential debate when she said Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 2007 order mandating the human papillomavirus vaccine for school girls “through an executive order is just flat-out wrong.”

Just as much as they are concerned that Bachmann made factually incorrect statements about the virus causing “mental retardation,” experts in the intellectual and developmental disabilities community are concerned that Bachmann also used inappropriate language to describe the issue.

“The term mentally retarded or the term mental retardation are totally unacceptable,” Peter Berns, chief executive officer of The Arc, a national disabilities group based in Washington, D.C., told

“It’s language was first rejected in the 1990s by individuals with disabilities and their families, and they don’t like to be labeled in that way. It’s extraordinarily offensive to them.”

Berns said that over the years, the word “retarded” has become an insult.

“Folks with developmental disabilities and intellectual disability have been ridiculed, are called names and are made fun of everywhere they go. That language is part of an insult. That offensive language reminds them of all the insult and injury they have experienced."

He further explains the incident is especially unfortunate because Bachmann was a member of Congress last year when Rosa’s law removed the use “mental retardation” in federal health, social security and labor legislation.

So what should everyone be using instead? The phrase that should be used in federal and social matters, Bern says, is “intellectual disability” or “intellectual developmental disabilities.”

“She made a mistake in using that language,” he says. “Any politician and any presidential candidate ought to know this is unacceptable language. The best thing for anyone who has used that language inappropriately would be to make an apology.”

Margaret Nygren, executive director of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities in Washington, D.C., says she also was extremely concerned about Bachmann’s statements about the vaccine.

“There is absolutely no credible scientific evidence linking vaccines with autism, intellectual disabilities or developmental disabilities ... and certainly none for HPV,” she says.

“The important issue here is the misrepresentation of the science, but I would very much prefer that she use the term intellectual disability because it is the better and more accurate term,” she says. “There was some confusion all around.”

The issue is not about political correctness, it is more about advocacy for people who have disabilities, says Debbi Harris of Eagan, Minn., the parent of an 18-year-old with physical and developmental disabilities and medical complexities. She frequently advocates and volunteers on behalf of children with special health care needs and developmental disabilities, and believes members of Congress “have a responsibility to know what’s appropriate.”

“It just leans more toward the marginalization of people with disabilities and thinking about people as people before they think about their labels and diagnoses,” says Harris, also board chair of The Arc Greater Twin Cities. “A situation like this is an opportunity to be brought to light so it doesn’t happen again.”