It is so important for us to recognize the profound impact our language has on others. Our choice of words can encourage, energize and inspire; or they can discourage, exclude and deflate.
We experience the impact in our work, our homes, our schools and our personal relationships. Consciously or unconsciously, what we say and how we are spoken to influence our ability to succeed or fail as individuals, as a community.
I have seen children raised in the most difficult of circumstances grow to be resilient leaders due in part to the positive role models in their lives who focused on strengths. I have seen flourishing workplaces where employees excel because they are working in a nurturing environment where management and colleagues understand the value of positive reinforcement. And I have seen people who do, think and say things differently with confidence and fortitude because the opinions, actions and yes, words, of those in their lives have fostered a sense of belonging, understanding, and ability.
For as long as I have been an adult, through all the many years that I have worked with disability related organizations, that I have simply lived and experienced relationships, I have disliked the words ‘mental retardation’. The words have a visceral effect on me. It just sounds derogatory and belittling to me, perhaps because of the horrible feeling I got in the pit of my stomach when I heard the abbreviation, ‘retard’. That same ugly feeling I get when I hear words referred to other groups of people aimed at knocking them down.
I recognize that to many, those words ‘mental retardation’ may conjure no negative or positive meaning. They are simply six syllables taught to describe a population.
Diana Mairose, an advocate support advisor for Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services, has been tirelessly working to change the vocabulary used to refer to people with disabilities. She is the major reason why the word ‘handicapped’ was removed from the blue accessibility signs locally and statewide. In 2009, she helped remove the words ‘mental retardation’ from the State of Ohio; however, not in the Ohio Revised Code…until last week. (You can read more about her in this post.)
In front of about 100 people – including Diana – Governor John Kasich signed into law Ohio House Bill 158, which formally removes the MR phrase in the Ohio Revised Code, replacing it with the more respectful ‘intellectual disability’.
“It was a very honored occasion,” Diana told me. “I am really happy that the people in government can see how it will show respect to so many people we serve. Mental retardation are words we need to stop using all together.”
Now it is our turn, to make a conscious decision to stop using words that discourage, exclude and deflate people. And, instead, use our language to rise people up, energize, include and inspire them.
When we do that, we all will benefit.
At 37, Diana Mairose may have a soft voice but it speaks loudly and with purpose. It is the vehicle behind which a confident, driven, empathetic, idea person collects believers of her cause. Sitting on the sidelines is not her thing. No, Diana’s friends, peers, co-workers, and public officials will tell you she is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to getting things done. What she gets done enhances lives, strengthens communities, and ensures people of their human rights.
Diana is an advocate support advisor for Hamilton County Developmental Disabilities Services (HCDDS), that promotes and supports opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to live, work, learn and fully participate in their communities. In a nutshell, what she does, she told me is, “help people to find their voice, and what they believe in and what they want to do in life.”
She has been referred to time and again as one of the best, most effective advocates in Ohio. She has spoken at conferences and events, in the community and before local, regional and statewide public officials; and she provides her peers with information and encouragement to have a voice…to be included.
Diana is also past president of the Ohio Self Determination Association (OSDA) and chair of Advocacy United, a group of professionals and advocates whose mission is to help move people with disabilities into places of power so their voices can be heard.
A driving force behind positive change
That seems to be the theme when it comes to Diana.
She has testified before President Obama’s Election Commission for accessible elections. On behalf of OSDA, she testified before an Ohio State Senate Committee last year about concerns that an amended House Bill would take away opportunities and rights of people with disabilities.
And she is the major reason for the removal of the word ‘handicapped’ from the blue accessibility signs local, and statewide. Diana told me, it was when Ohio changed the name from Mental Retardation Developmental Disabilities Services to simply Developmental Disabilities Services that spurred her quest to change those signs in public places and parking lots. It all began with the Hamilton County Commissioners around the time when the Banks new garage was opening. “I told them the importance of reading symbols and showing respect in the community,” she told me. “After that I took my advocacy idea to the next level. I asked the City of Cincinnati council members to vote yes for the City and for it to also be a budget neutral law. At that time I also helped other counties and cities to remove the word ‘handicap’ from Ohio, and spoke with Eric Kearney about introducing this bill to make it a law.”
That law took several years to happen, but it happened! “I really like the accessible symbol. Symbols help everybody everywhere,” Diana said. “It is a simple way to respect other people. My grandma is 102. Elderly, children and adults with disabilities, family members and friends benefit.
“Advocacy comes from ideas and hopes and dreams. When I see the accessible symbol I smile for a positive change in the state of Ohio.”
Diana has a lot of reasons to smile.