Advocacy and Activism Squelch “R” Word from Government Language

By: Doni Dondero

If your child has Down Syndrome, you have heard of Rosa’s Law, but did you know Rosa is one of GiGi’s Playhouse Annapolis participants?  Rosa was the inspirations for the law that carries her name and stamped out the term “mental retardation” and “retarded” in Maryland state and federal government documents.

Mom Nina, now a special education teacher, made it clear from the time Rosa entered school that she did not want the word “retarded” used to describe her daughter because of the negative stigma and connotation the label carries.  Many self-advocates and organizations had expressed their disdain for the term years before Rosa’s label was changed, and the effort to replace the term had already begun in Virginia thanks to self-advocate and co-president of The Arc of Northern Virginia, Jill Egle. When school officials wanted to change the code on Rosa’s IEP to MR, Nina set out to find a legislator who would be sympathetic to disabilities issues and was introduced to Delegate Ted Sophocleus.

Delegate Sophocleus championed the effort by creating a stakeholder workgroup in Maryland to work out the details for the replacement of the term.  Nina was introduced to Senator Barbara Mikulski when they both attended a meeting at Central Elementary School to discuss special education expenditures under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  When the Senator heard about Nina’s efforts in Maryland, she promised that if it passed, she would take the fight to the US Senate.  Senator Mikulski kept her promise and after Rosa’s Law passed in Maryland, and garnered a non-partisan support for the bill at the federal level. Nina, husband and the four Marcellino children, all sports enthusiasts, became players on the Rosa’s Law team gathering support in the community and organizations that had an interest in changing the way the world views people with special needs.

Around the same time, Special Olympics launched its well-known campaign and highly successful campaign, “Spread the Word to End the Word,” to raise awareness of the power of everyday language and to urge people to pledge to stop using the R word.  Many public and private schools hold annual events in March to continue to raise awareness of disability rights issues and the Spread the Word campaign. AACPS had a 10-year anniversary celebration of Rosa’s Law passing in Maryland (passed federally in 2010) with Senator Mikulski and Ted Sophocleus’ family in attendance.  March is also the 10-year anniversary of the Spread the Word to End the Word campaign founded by Special Olympics. Rosa’s Law replaces terminology in all state and federal language (legal documents, education documents, DSM) and the Spread the Word campaign aims to stop the use of the word in everyday vernacular by raising awareness in schools and annually in various events in the month of March.


NOTE: Nina Marcellino is a Special Education Teacher in Anne Arundel County Public School System. She is currently in the process of planning an adult computer class to be offered at GiGi’s Playhouse Annapolis in the very near future.  Nina is also a Special Olympics Coach for Track & Field in Anne Arundel County.



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