On Monday afternoon I had the distinct pleasure of presenting HB 1137 to the Senate State Affairs Committee for a public hearing. This bill calls for future legislation concerning people with disabilities to be written using “People First” language. What I thought was a simple bill became a moving experience, reminding me of the importance of legislation in shaping the way we interact with one another.
“People First” language means just that – referring to the person before adding further descriptions, such as a person with a disability or a person with a medical condition. This approach asks that we do not equate the person with their condition and that disrespectful language is avoided. An example would be to say someone is a person with epilepsy, rather than referring to them as an “epileptic.”
HB 1137 sets out a rule for how legislation and rules adopted by administrative agencies should be written. Its primary audience is the attorneys who staff our drafting office and their counterparts in the Department of Law that advise rulemaking bodies. As introduced the bill applied prospectively to future legislation, but with an amendment I added today it also authorizes the Revisor of Statutes to propose updates to existing law to bring them into compliance with this new standard for how our laws are written. The Revisor of Statutes is an employee in the Office of Legislative Legal Services and each year proposes legislation to fine tune the language in state law to harmonize the various changes that take place over time.
The committee hearing on HB 1137 began as any other as I offered a short summary of the bill. I thought my words were occasionally eloquent, but the witnesses that testified for the bill stole the show. First my friend Marijo Rymer of the ARC of Colorado explained the origin of the bill and the move in several other states to adopt this requirement. Next, advocates for people with developmental disabilities testified about their support for HB 1137. Then a series of people with various disabilities told their personal stories about respectful ways to refer them and some words and labels they wished they didn’t have to hear.
“Labels are for jars, not people,” said a woman with a developmental disability. In that one sentence she made the case for HB 1137 in a more powerful way than any eloquence I might summon. She made me see, as did the other witnesses, that this simple bill has tremendous meaning for her life and the lives of countless other people with disabilities as they strive to be seen as individuals. Each person is unique, not because of a diagnosis or disability, but because of their personality, their smile and their spirit.
HB 1137 makes a small statement about the importance of language and hopefully a much larger statement about our common humanity and the values we all share. It made an impact on me, on the Senate State Affairs Committee (which unanimously passed the bill), and on the people who took an afternoon away from their regular schedule to share their stories with us. Its impact will continue forward as it becomes the new standard for how laws are written in our state.