Disabled celebrate department's name change

By Nandini Jayakrishna
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2009
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With the start of the fiscal year, the state Department of Mental Retardation has taken on a new name.

The agency, which serves developmentally disabled children and adults, adopted the name Department of Developmental Services yesterday, signaling a victory for the disabled and their providers who lobbied for years against the pejorative phrase “mental retardation.’’

“I was always ridiculed because I was different,’’ said Craig Smith, 52, of Brighton, who suffers from chronic memory loss. “This day changes everything. It’s about respecting people.’’

Before the House and Senate approved the name change last year, Smith and other members of the Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong, a nonprofit group of those with cognitive and developmental disabilities, fought hard for the measure. They rallied for it at the State House, called, e-mailed, and wrote letters to legislators, and told their stories.

John Anton,43, of Haverhill, who has a mild case of Down syndrome, said the word “retarded’’ would haunt him. “When I used to go to school, there were a lot of people who made fun of me with that word,’’ he said.

“It was really an effort from the ground up, led by consumers and self-advocates who found the terminology used in this field to be offensive,’’ said Gary Blumenthal, executive director of the Waltham-based Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers.

Edmund Bielecki, of Kingston, state coordinator for Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong, said the phrase “developmental services’’ captures the nature of the agency’s work, without labeling or denigrating the people it serves.

Only five or six states still have the words “mental retardation’’ in the names of agencies serving the developmentally disabled, said Elin M. Howe, commissioner of the department.

For Blumenthal, yesterday’s success is only a small part of the battle. “It’s great to see the name change,’’ Blumenthal said. “It’s bittersweet when you change the name and cut the services.’’

More than $45 million has been cut from the department’s budget this year, Howe said.

Jayakrishna can be reached at