Toby Talbot / AP Photo A Vermont House committee took testimony Thursday on a bill that would update Vermont's sometimes centuries-old laws to remove words like "imbecile" and "idiot" and replace them with more modern and respectful language.
MONTPELIER — Outdated, offensive words to describe people including “lunatics” and “retarded” that are still on the books in Vermont are being sought out so lawmakers can strike the 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.
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,” said committee member Laura Ziegler.
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” as a means to get around.
Changing the words in statutes may not be as simple as it sounds, though.
For example, a wording change could have the effect of broadening the group of people who could be committed to the custody of the Department of Mental Health, said Susan Wehry, commissioner of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, in comments to the House Government Operations Committee on Thursday.
Lawmakers talked about continually revising the language in an effort to get it right.
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