Local legislators in the Ohio Statehouse have each recently announced the introduction of legislation that would take the term "mental retardation" out of the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, as well as its county boards. The moves come at the tail end of March, which is also MRDD Awareness Month.
|Members of the ATCO workshop take part in a parade in this file photo from last month. ATCO workers have been among those lobbying to remove "MR" from MRDD.|
State Sen. Jimmy Stewart, R-Albany, championed this cause when he was in the Ohio House, introducing two separate bills to this end. In the Ohio Senate, Stewart again introduced the legislation, and gave sponsor testimony Tuesday before committee.
State Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, announced companion legislation in the House on Thursday during a press conference in which various champions of the cause joined her. Locally, advocates included individuals from the Developmental Disabilities Council - Center for Public Policy and the PersonnelPlus Consumer Advisory Council.
Those self-advocates in attendance later helped file the bill themselves with the clerk's office of the Ohio House of Representatives.
"I was extremely pleased that so many self-advocates were able to join us this morning to introduce this bill," Phillips said. "Language has the ability to be very powerful in our society, and this name change reflects our commitment to those with developmental disabilities to be properly recognized."
The legislation would rename the state agency the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. Stewart's office pointed out in a release that Ohio is currently one of six states that still use "retardation" in the name of a state-funded department.
The legislation would also remove the term from county boards, making them the (whatever) County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Ten of Ohio's 88 county boards have already changed their name, each doing business as (whatever) County Board of Developmental Disabilities.
"It was clear from the people that I spoke with last year and this year, that for folks who are part of the community, so many folks with developmental disabilities, this term is very offensive, in large part because of what many of them endured as adolescents," Stewart said. "This is a classic example of language where sometimes words' meanings can change over time. This particular word " retard, or retardation " has taken on a negative context for many."
Stewart said that 50 years ago this might not have been the case. He pointed to the state Legislature, in recent years, removing terms like "idiot," "imbecile" and "drunkard" from sections of the Ohio Revised Code, noting that the meaning and stigma related to such terms has changed over time.
Stewart said "mental retardation" was another example of that.
"I'm just glad to be able to be a part of this, to try to right a wrong," Stewart said.
Athens County MRDD Supt. Jody Harris praised Stewart and Phillips for their efforts.
"I think it's great," Harris said, pointing out that it was about two years ago that individuals the county board serves came to them with a petition asking them to drop MR from the county name. Harris said the board did surveys and focus groups, and the petitioners returned late this past summer to again ask for removal of the term.
"The board, at that time, decided to remove MR from our name," Harris said. "But we couldn't do it legally. We had to say the board was doing business as the county board of developmental disabilities. So then they approached Jimmy Stewart."
Harris said Stewart attended a Developmental Disabilities Planning Council meeting in Columbus, where advocates of the name change made their point. Stewart then set out to create the legislation, which was introduced as two separate bills last fall. In the lame duck session, those bills were not passed, creating the need for the newly introduced legislation in the House and Senate.
"For our individuals it's very sensitive," Harris said. "They remember, when they were young, being called retarded, retard and things like that. So their testimony to the board was so emotional. And they're very strong advocates. They've been pushing this statewide, and I'm so proud of them. It's an old term. It's out of date."
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland also recently got on board with the name changes when he kicked off MRDD Awareness Month at the beginning of March.
"I don't have a preferred nomenclature at the present time," Strickland reportedly said. "But I do think that working together, we can come up with a name for the department that is in fact more respectful and does not cause people to feel maybe embarrassed or maybe feel as if they're a lesser person simply because they have a disability."
Stewart said that he hopes to pass the legislation out of the Senate in the near future, but didn't want to give a timeline as the process for passing legislation is fluid and subject to a number of factors.
Phillips said what she found most impressive about the effort was that the developmental disabilities community had taken such a strong leadership role in raising awareness about the issue and pushing for policy changes.
"That's why it was important to me to make sure these people could be there with us when we introduced the bill," Phillips said. "Several individuals had a chance to talk about what it means to them and why they've been working so hard to get the bill passed."
Phillips said that Stewart has been a great ally to this community. "I'm looking forward to working with him to get this through this year," she said. "I think the bipartisanship of the bill is a really good sign."