BOISE – After Idaho hosted the Special Olympics World Winter Games last year, state Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, said he was startled when reading through Idaho statutes to see outmoded terminology like “mentally retarded,” “mentally deficient” and even “lunatic” and “idiot.”
Hosting athletes from around the world with mental disabilities, Bock said, “I think … made all of us a little more sensitive with respect to some of the language we use.”
So the Boise attorney began working with state officials to search through state laws and found lots of that kind of wording. A half-dozen meetings followed with state Health and Welfare officials, the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities, the courts, the state Department of Insurance and more.
In the end, Bock came up with an 82-page bill to update the wording in several sections of Idaho state law, from the probate code (which referred to “a decedent, an infant, lunatic or insolvent”) to the death penalty (which included a section headed, “Imposition of death penalty upon mentally retarded person prohibited”).
As the bill took shape, a section about “Contracts of Idiots” became “Contracts of Persons Without Understanding.” A clause about vocational education programs that said “handicapped students” was switched to “students with disabilities.”
When Bock presented the bill Monday to the Idaho Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee, state Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, asked if it would penalize people who use the outdated terms. Bock said no. “That’s not in the bill,” he said. “It’s not about requiring people to speak in a certain way. It’s about the language in the statute.”
Bock said the Special Olympics, which drew international attention to Idaho and brought hundreds of Idahoans out as volunteers to help with the games, opened his eyes about language referring to people with disabilities.
“We shouldn’t be labeling them in a way that’s disrespectful,” he said.
State Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, noted that the long bill also, in one instance, changes the term “Afro-American” to “African-American.” Bock said that was simply a matter of updating a term that’s no longer in use.
The bill also, in several instances, changes the word “handicapped” to “impaired,” and removes the term “the mentally retarded” in favor of “people with intellectual disabilities.” In all cases, Bock said, “the goal was absolutely no change in the substance of the law.”
The Senate committee voted unanimously to introduce the bill. To become law, it still needs to survive full committee hearings and votes in both houses, plus receive the governor’s signature.
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