Washington — A 9-year-old Edgewater girl who inspired a new federal law was honored by President Barack Obama at a White House ceremony Friday for Americans with disabilities.
Rosa Marcellino, who has Down syndrome, is the namesake of a new law that removes the words "mentally retarded" from most federal health, education and labor statutes. Replacing that terminology in the federal code from now on will be the phrase "intellectual disability."
"It's so inspiring to have her here," Obama said, looking over at Rosa, who had a first-row seat at the East Room event.
He also singled out her older brother for explaining the idea behind the language shift.
"What you call people is how you treat them. If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude toward people with disabilities,'" Obama said, attributing those lines to 15-year-old Nick Marcellino.
"That's a lot of wisdom from Nick," added the president, to applause from an crowd of about 150 people, including disability rights activists, lawmakers, other government officials and, on stage behind the president, singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder.
Obama smilingly chided parents Nina and Paul Marcellino for "choking up" as he was speaking about Rosa and Nick.
"They're really proud of their kids," he explained, "and appropriately so."
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Obama signed a new law that updates closed captioning and other services for the deaf, blind or otherwise visually impaired, known as the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act.
Earlier in the week, in private, he signed "Rosa's Law" into effect. The measure, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, is modeled on a similar statute, enacted last year by the General Assembly, that changed the wording of the state health and education code that affects Marylanders living with intellectual disability.
Obama said the new federal legislation is "about opportunity," not sympathy. It is designed, he said, to help Americans with disabilities participate more fully in everyday life and take better advantage of advanced technology.
As soon as the midafternoon formalities ended, the president stepped down from the stage and made a beeline for Rosa, giving her a big hug and posing for pictures with her parents, brother and sisters Madeline, 13, and Gigi, 11.
Later, as the Marcellinos walked outside to the White House lawn, Nina Marcellino said the celebration with the president had capped a two-year fight to change the way government looks at people like her youngest daughter.
"We're just so honored to be a part of this moment," she said, describing the ceremony as "very overwhelming and exciting" and "really emotional."
An ABC TV crew preparing a "Person of the Week" feature about Rosa for the evening news gathered footage of the Marcellinos on the sun-filled lawn while battling noise from a nearby construction project in the White House driveway.
Mikulski, who is up for re-election next month, wore a button on her lapel that featured Rosa's picture. She said Nina Marcellino gave it to her the first time they met, at an education roundtable last year in Anne Arundel County. The mother told her that Rosa had been labeled as mentally retarded by the state's individualized education program but that the "R-word" wasn't allowed in her house.
Mikulski agreed to promote legislation on the national level if the drive to get it approved by state legislature was successful. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it into law in April 2009.
A congressional report that accompanied the bipartisan federal legislation, which Mikulski co-sponsored with Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi and 43 other senators, underscored the evolution of the terminology that Rosa's Law seeks to update by recalling words used in previous federal statutes.
"Imbecile," "moron," "idiot," and "feeble-minded" were all used for "those now often called mentally retarded," according to the report.
"Within the past 30 years, the terms 'mental retardation' and 'mentally retarded,' or derivatives of those terms, have also developed into colloquial slurs and pejorative phrases used to demean and insult both persons with and without disabilities." the report went on to say. "These negative attributions towards people with disabilities should not be tolerated."