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Law removing harmful language on mental health, disabilities heralded by advocates

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A law recently signed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine finally removes derogatory language about people with disabilities from state law, a move years in the making.

Advocates praised the passage and signing of the Mental Health and Disability Terminology Act, introduced with bipartisan sponsors as House Bill 281.

The bill was years in the making, and removes words like “idiot,” lunatics,” and “derangement” from the Ohio Revised Code.

“The words are very stigmatizing, they’re very traumatizing and antiquated,” said Katherine Yoder, executive director of Ohio’s Adult Advocacy Centers. “It’s one of those things that as society… and as people’s humanity evolves, language is the most obvious thing that changes.”

As the work began in 2021 to get the bill into the Ohio House, legislators reacted with surprise, mainly because they thought 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 revised code.

Yoder said it’s common for people to think these language changes have been made to eliminate words so commonly known as pejorative, but those not working directly with people with disabilities may overlook changes that haven’t been made.

So, when the attempt to remove the language was put together in 2021, Yoder was relieved to find the legislative push led by organizations doing the work. It’s one thing to be supportive of the moves and take charge without knowing the world in which people with disabilities live, Yoder said.

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

Part of the measure’s journey through the Ohio House and Senate was educating legislators in committee meetings. HB 281 passed quickly through the House with state Reps. Dontavius ​​Jarrells, D-Columbus, and Tom Young, R-Washington Twp. at the helm.

“It’s something that obviously you have to seek out and you have to learn,” Yoder said.

The legislation was bolstered by a host of organizations, such as Nationwide Children’s Hospital, the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council, Disability Rights Ohio, and the Mental Health & Addiction Advocacy Coalition.

“Emphasizing a person’s humanity and individuality rather than defining them solely by a specific characteristic fosters understanding and inclusion, and the use of people-first language in statute will promote more equitable access to the benefits of our laws and civil society,” said Erich Bittner , director of government relations for the Ohio Association of County Boards of Developmental Disabilities, during a November meeting of the Senate Health Committee.

For the Adult Advocacy Centers, language is particularly important because of the work they do helping crime victims who have developmental disabilities. Language is a “foundational piece” to avoid marginalizing individuals, and when Ohio Revised Code can be cited with antiquated language still included, equity is hard to achieve, according to Yoder.

In criminal justice, Yoder said there’s a gap in training for those investigating crimes where the victim has disabilities. From talking to victims to creating accessibility at the courthouse for those attending court cases, the many layers of changes needed to help start with allowing the voices of the victims to be heard.

“The justice system was never set up with people with disabilities in mind,” Yoder said.

With the language changes approved, advocates are hoping to move forward with more changes, like increased representation in criminal justice with forensic interviewers, more specifically trained to help those with disabilities through criminal cases.

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

As the year goes along, advocates also hope to receive some of the remaining American Rescue Plan funds to help build facilities for advocacy work, and to tackle crimes like benefits trafficking – the victimization of people with disabilities for their government assistance checks.

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