Advocates praise the Act to Remove Harmful Language on Mental Health and Disabilities

Next article It was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal It is published on under a Content Sharing Agreement.

Columbus, Ohio — A law recently signed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine finally removed derogatory language about people with disabilities from state law, a move that has been in the works for years.

Advocates applauded the passage and signing into law of the Mental Health and Disability Terminology Act, which was introduced with bipartisan sponsors as House Bill 281.

The bill was years in the making, and removes words like “idiot,” “insane,” and “obfuscation” that were still part of Ohio’s revised code.

“The words are so disgraceful, they’re so hurtful and outdated,” said Kathryn Yoder, executive director of the Adult Advocacy Centers of Ohio. “It is one of those things that as society develops…and as people’s humanity develops, language is the most obvious thing that changes.”

When work began in 2021 to get the bill into the Ohio House, lawmakers reacted with surprise, mainly because they believed the changes had already been made.

State agencies were renamed in 2009 to remove the word “mental retardation” from county and state agencies, but the language remained in the revised code.

It’s common for people to think that these language changes were made to remove words known as pejoratives, Yoder said, but those who don’t work directly with people with disabilities may ignore changes that aren’t made.

So when the effort to remove the language was put together in 2021, Yoder was relieved to find legislative push led by organizations doing the work. It’s one thing, Yoder said, to support the movements and take responsibility without knowing the world people with disabilities live in.

“It’s another thing to kind of step back and let this community or that cultural group make the necessary changes and advocate for themselves,” Yoder said.

Part of the measure’s journey through the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate was educating lawmakers in committee meetings. HB 281 quickly passed through the House of Representatives with Reps. Dontavious Garrels, D-Columbus, and Tom Young, R-Washington Twp. at the helm.

“Obviously it’s something you have to look for and you have to learn,” Yoder said.

The legislation has been promoted by a group of organizations, such as Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, the Ohio Developmental Disability Council, Disability Rights Ohio, and the Mental Health and Addiction Advocacy Coalition.

“Emphasizing an individual’s humanity and individuality rather than defining them solely by a specific characteristic enhances understanding and inclusion, and using the first language of people in law will promote more equitable access to the benefits of our laws and civil society,” said Eric Bittner, director of government relations for the Ohio Association of County Boards of Disabilities developmental, during the November meeting of the Senate Health Committee.

For adult advocacy centers, language is especially important because of the work they do to help crime victims with developmental disabilities. Language is an “essential piece” to avoid marginalizing individuals, and when the Revised Ohio Code can be cited with older language still included, it’s hard to do justice, according to Yoder.

In the field of criminal justice, Yoder said there is a gap in the training of those who investigate crimes in which the victim is a person with disabilities. From speaking to victims to providing courtroom access for those attending court cases, there are many layers of changes needed to help begin to allow victims’ voices to be heard.

“The justice system was not created with people with disabilities in mind,” Yoder said.

With the language changes approved, advocates hope to move forward with more changes, such as increased representation in criminal justice with forensic interlocutors, who are trained more specifically to help people with disabilities through criminal cases.

“The goal or focus (of criminal interviewing) is not to help people with developmental disabilities find their voice,” Yoder said. “They already have their voices. It’s about letting their voices be heard.”

As the year goes on, advocates also hope to receive some of their remaining American Rescue Plan money to help build facilities for advocacy work, and tackle crimes like benefit trafficking—harming people with disabilities for government assistance checks.

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