Question Wording, Change in Wording, and Rosa’s Law

Question wording affects answers.   The first sentence in the comment below (No. 85 Rosa’s Law and Surveys) is an acknowledgement of this fundamental flaw in survey research:  “Question wording plays a critical role in [affecting] how respondents . . . answer . . .  questions.”

However, the main point of #85 is about change in wording: “Survey researchers . . . should be aware of this change [in wording from mentally retardation before Rosa’s Law to intellectual disability after the Law was passed in 2010] and the possible implications for prevalence estimates, particularly if data from before and after 2010 are being compared or combined”, rather than the fundamental issue of  question wording.  Regardless of whether or not changes are made in question wording–actually regardless of how questions are wordedQUESTION WORDING AFFECTS ANSWERS.  And there’s no way–no way!–to word questions so that questions don’t affect/skew/bias  answer.

Answers obtained are results of questions asked.  That is, words in questions “manufacture” answers; they can “create”, actually bring into existence, “opinions [and other objects of investigation]that might not otherwise be evident.”  Answers aren’t “out there”, so to speak, and then questions find them; rather, questions make answers.

See also:

Question Wording Makes Answers Unreliable

Question Wording Affects/Biases/Skews Answers

Question Wording Skews Answers

Question Wording and Stated Opinions

The Problem with Survey Research

and Counter Literature to Survey Research


“No. 85
Rosa’s Law and Surveys about Disabilities

Question wording plays a critical role in how respondents interpret and answer survey questions. Question wording in surveys can change over time in response to advances in questionnaire design, changes in society or culture, or changes in definitions. This is particularly true when survey researchers are using terminology that is associated with a medical diagnosis or legal definition.

One such change occurred in 2010 when President Obama signed a law in October 2010. Known as Rosa’s Law, this legislation required the federal government to replace the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability.” The law is named after Rosa Marcellino, a girl with Downs Syndrome who was nine years old when it became law, and who, according to President Barack Obama, “worked with her parents and her siblings to have the words ‘mentally retarded’ officially removed from the health and education code in her home state of Maryland.” Rosa’s Law is part of a series of modifications to terminology – beginning in the early 1990s – that have been used to describe persons with what we now refer to as intellectual disabilities.

One result of this law is that federal surveys such as the National Health Interview Survey changed the terminology used in survey questions from asking about “mental retardation” to asking about “intellectual disability, also known as mental retardation.” Survey researchers using the NHIS data on intellectual disabilities should be aware of this change and the possible implications for prevalence estimates, particularly if data from before and after 2010 are being compared or combined. In addition, researchers who are designing surveys that measure intellectual disabilities may want to use terminology and question wording that is consistent with federal guidelines.”

About georgebeam

George Beam is an educator and author. The perspectives that inform his interpretations of the topics of this blog–-as well as his other writings and university courses -–are system analysis, behaviorism, and Internet effects. Specific interests include quality management, methodology, and politics. He is Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Administration; Affiliated Faculty, Department of Political Science; and, previously, Head, Department of Public Administration, University of Illinois at Chicago
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