Maine law to change offensive language

Christina Mailhot got teased a lot as a child.

Offensive words and phrases found in state statutes by a 2007 work group and their recommended replacements:

Afflicted (eliminate or use "affected")

Crippled children (children with disabilities)

Deranged (persons who have mental health diagnoses)

Drunkard (person with alcoholism)

Handicapped (eliminate as a noun, as in "the handicapped." Replace with "disabilities" when paired with a person, as in "child with disabilities")

Lunatic (person declared legally incompetent)

Mental deficiency (cognitive disability)

Mental retardation (developmental disability)

Mentally defective (has a cognitive disability)

Senile (eliminate or use "people with dementia" or "people who have dementia")

Born with Down syndrome, words like "retard" were flung at her every day, meant to be insulting. So when Mailhot, now 33 and a member of the Augusta-based self-advocacy group Speaking Up For Us, heard state officials using "mentally retarded" in relation to people with disabilities, she cringed.

"It's legal talk; they're legal words saying we are stupid," she said. "I'm not that stupid, you know."

Soon, such words will be wiped from Maine law and removed from the names of some Department of Health and Human Services programs. They will be replaced with phrases like "intellectual disability" and "person with a disability."

"It's about time," Mailhot said. "It took forever."

Disability rights advocates began pushing for a change in law in 2006. People with developmental disabilities and their families were growing frustrated with disparaging words in Maine law, including "crippled," "deranged" and "invalids." In 2007, the state Legislature asked the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council in Augusta to create a work group to identify the offensive words and phrases in state statutes. 

"The stuff that was in there was just horrendous," said Christina Mailhot's mother, Irene Mailhot, who is director of Speaking Up For Us.

That work group came up with 62 terms found in hundreds of places throughout state law and policies and used regularly in public discussions.

Since then, various laws have been passed to replace offensive terms. One immediately removed a few words from state statutes and one changed the name of a program. Another law directed DHHS to review its statutes and come up with a plan to replace the offensive words, but Julia Bell, executive director of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council, said DHHS never moved forward. Last year, she said, DHHS was directed to work with the council on the necessary changes.

A few weeks ago, the Legislature passed LD 1845, a bill that changes much of the remaining language in state statute and DHHS programs. Many of those changes turn "mental retardation" into "intellectual disability" and "mentally ill" into "person with a mental illness."

Advocates say the changes remove the hated "retardation," which was used frequently decades ago but has since become a schoolyard taunt. They say the changes also help to emphasize the person over the disability by placing the person first in a phrase.

"Just like you wouldn't say 'the cancer person,'" Irene Mailhot said. "You wouldn't put the illness first. So why would you do that here?"

Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill on March 20. Because it was emergency legislation, the changes go into effect immediately.

Advocates hope the changes will set an example by showing some language is offensive and shouldn't be used. 

"So often the language we use ends up reflecting our beliefs or steering our beliefs," Bell said. "It's a first step."

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 's picture

So, tell me who is to stand

So, tell me who is to stand up for the growing bastardization of the English language? To hinder, impede or hold back is to retard the progress of something. This word is simply a word and something tells me that those most offended by it are so out of some feelings of higher nobility than those they intend to protect.
Let's take a look at some other words that have lost meaning:
A mentor used to be a rare and naturally occuring process; now relegated to direct suport staff and persons appointed in a workplace.
Alright, if you stormed a gun placement to save your squad and lived to tell about it, claim this status. Post 9/11 however, anyone who ever so much as put on a Meter Maid uniform can claim it. I served in the military folks. I'm not a hero. Quit dilluting words.
The thing is, once we get rid of words that ellicit feeling; positive or negative, we've crippled (yes, crippled) our own language and removed the power of all words. As a writer, I refuse to lay down a word to anyone. As a vet, I may take offense if you call me a drunk sotten Mick, but damn if I won't fight for your right to say it.

 's picture

Language change

I agree that changes in language use -- and this happens in all languages, not just English -- often impoverish the language by altering the connotation of words. What often happens is that what had been neutral terms acquire a negative, even insulting, implication. Could we go back to using "idiot," "imbecile" and "moron" in their old clinical senses without calling to mind the offensive connotations that now encrust them? I doubt it. This is what has happened to "retarded." Like it or not, languages change because speech communities decide they need to change -- in other words, from below. And even those of us who are linguistic conservatives (and I count myself among them) sometimes have to recognize that we've lost a battle. See the Wikipedia article "Semantic change" for more on this fascinating topic.

 's picture

I appreciate the mature tenor

I appreciate the mature tenor of this dialogue as when I hit "save" part of me was cringing at the vicerae that would be thrown around. I agree that languages evolve, but must we demonize an entire set of words? If words are not intended to illicit a feeling; negative or positive, have we not cheapened the value of words and, in effect, communication as a whole? Just a thought. Besides, now that we have changed the language, we have only saved ourselves perhaps another year or two before "intellectual disability" itself will be derrogatory. I can hear school kids throwing it around in my mind now. After all, doesn't it make you sound more intellectually fit to throw intellectually disabled at another? Kids are, after all, cruel little buggers.


Words when used to describe a

Words when used to describe a "thing" are not hurtful but when used to describe a "person" is demeaning. My son has multiple disabilities and when asked why he is seeing a professional he will look at you and say "I have issues"...with that context it makes him no different from other children his age as all people have issues. But to use another word such as "retarded" to describe my son is not only incorrect but also leads to others bullying him. Just because a person may have a mental illness does not mean they are retarded. It just means they have an issue that they deal with. Words DO hurt. It is about time our lawmakers start using language that doesn't hurt the people of Maine.


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