April 11, 2013

Vermont weeds out its offensive words

State lawmakers look at removing outdated terms from the books in favor of more respectful language.

The Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. – Outdated, offensive words to describe people including "lunatics" and "retarded" that are still on the books in Vermont are being sought out so lawmakers can strike the offending passages from the law.

The Senate has already passed a bill calling for respectful language to be used, and a House committee reviewing it heard testimony Thursday.

"There are certain words that are no longer acceptable," said Sen. Anthony Pollina of Washington County.

In one instance, a law says a marriage could be annulled if it could be shown that one of the partners was a "lunatic" or was "distracted" at the time of the wedding.

But it makes no reference to whether the distraction might have been caused by a call from the office.

Members of a special committee that's been studying Vermont's statutes since 2010 said they took a "person-first" approach to revising the language used in the laws. For example, a "mentally retarded person" would be referred to as "a person with an intellectual disability" under new language guidelines.

Several people noted that terms used to describe groups of people change in part because those groups advocate for the changes.

"The language of the law should not be repulsive to the people it talks about," committee member Laura Ziegler said.

Another committee member, Ed Paquin, is a former state legislator and rescue squad member who suffered severe electric shock and spinal nerve injuries when he stumbled into a downed power line while responding to an accident in 1988. He uses a wheelchair and serves as executive director of Disability Rights Vermont.

He said he was glad to see the language in Vermont's statutes being changed but added that his concerns extend beyond what's in the law books. For instance, he strongly dislikes the phrase "wheelchair-bound."

"I'm not 'bound' to my wheelchair," he said. "I'm liberated by it" because it helps him get around.

Lawmakers talked about continually revising the language in an effort to get it right.


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