Opponents of R-Word Win Key Legislative Victory in New Jersey

A movement to eliminate references to the disabled as "mentally retarded" from laws and regulations gained steam  this week after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation replacing the terms with "intellectual disability" and "developmental disability."

This month, the U.S. Senate passed a similar bill and the House will take up its version next month.

While advocates for the disabled have campaigned for years against the R-word, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel drew attention to the issue this year when he apologized for privately calling a group of liberal Democrats "retarded" last year. Sarah Palin, who has a son with Down syndrome, criticized Emanuel in a Facebook posting.

The bill Christie signed Monday eliminates outdated terms such as "mentally retarded" and "feeble-minded." Preferred terms are "intellectual disability" and "developmental disability."

The new law also promotes so-called "person-first" language. For example, it's preferred to say "a person with a disability" rather than a "disabled person."

Existing laws and regulations will be edited to reflect the change.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the Senate sponsor who has a daughter who is learning disabled, said the legislation is important "because words matter."

Dennis Donatelli, the president of the New Jersey Self-Advocacy Project, told FoxNews.com that people with disabilities don't want to be degraded.

"They want to have equal opportunities just like everyone else," he said.

The Senate bill, known as Rosa's Law, passed this month and eliminates the terms "mental retardation" and "mentally retarded" from federal education, health and labor laws.

"The bill was driven by a passion for social justice and a compassion for the human condition," Sen. Barbara Mikulski, author of the legislation, said in a written statement.

The bill has drawn support from the other side of the aisle.

"The bill is simple in nature but profound in what it will do when it is enacted," Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo, a co-sponsor, said in a written statement."For far too long we have used hurtful words like 'mental retardation' or 'MR' in our federal statutes to refer to those living with intellectual disabilities. While the way people feel is important, the way people are treated is equally important. Rosa's Law will make a greatly needed change that should have been made well before today – and it will encourage us to treat people the way they would like to be treated."

A companion bill in the House has 63 co-sponsors but is stuck in committee for now.

Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, told FoxNews.com that the New Jersey law doesn't make it illegal to use the term and doesn't fall into the category of political correctness.

"It's not censorship," she said. "No one said you can't use it."

But she added the new language is "probably more appropriate" because it reflects contemporary use.