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Retardation name is called offensive

Lawmakers seek to retitle agency

The name of the state Department of Mental Retardation is an offensive relic that should be abandoned, some lawmakers say.

Senators Karen E. Spilka and Stephen Brewer are sponsoring a bill that calls for the department to find a politically correct name.

"The world has changed radically, and certain names that used to be OK now aren't," said Brewer, a Barre Democrat. "When I was a boy, 'colored' was used for African-Americans, but that's unacceptable now. I believe that 'mentally retarded' is not appropriate."

He says he's open to what the department should be called, but he has suggestions, perhaps the Department of Challenged Citizens or the Department of Developmental Disabilities. "Whatever it is, it should connote honor and dignity to those who have challenges in life," he said.

Gerald Morrissey, the commissioner of the Department of Mental Retardation, could not be reached last night. At a budget hearing in Franklin yesterday, he told lawmakers that while changing the name would be complicated, it would be worthwhile, State House News Service reported.

The Department of Mental Retardation provides services and support to about 32,000 adults with mental retardation and to children with developmental disabilities in Massachusetts, according to its website.

Spilka -- an Ashland Democrat who is chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities -- says she cringes when she hears the name of the agency, in part because her sister has Down syndrome.

"People don't understand what they're saying when they use the word retarded or how it affects people," said Spilka, adding that her committee was recently renamed to include "persons with disabilities." She said she isn't ready to sign onto Brewer's ideas yet but is soliciting ideas.

Brewer, a member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said he has been motivated to change the name in part because he lives next to the state's first institution to care for the mentally retarded, which was called the Home for the Feeble Minded.

He said other states have considered or changed the name of similar departments.

David Abel can be reached at