LINCOLN — Saying words can hurt people, Nebraska lawmakers moved Thursday to erase the “R-word” from state law.
They adopted an amendment to Legislative Bill 23 replacing the words “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” throughout the statute books.
The amendment was approved without dissent but not without painful personal stories about the power of words.
State Sen. Scott Price of Bellevue told about being a kindergartner in 1963 with a severe speech impediment.
His teacher put a dunce cap on his head and marched him down the hall to join the “retarded” children.
A few days later, he said, the teacher realized the mistake and walked him back to rejoin the regular class. But the damage was done by then.
“I was a marked kid for a long, long time,” Price said.
Two senators spoke about having children with disabilities.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha related the hurt he suffers when his daughter, who has an intellectual disability, is called a “retard.” Among those who have made reference to “those 'tards,” he said, was another lawmaker.
Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont talked about his son's autism. “He doesn't suffer with that — he thrives,” Janssen said.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said one of the biggest lies children get told is the adage: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
He recalled being the only black child in his elementary school class when his teacher read “Little Black Sambo.” The other children laughed, he said, while the teacher did nothing to stop them.
“I felt shame,” Chambers said. “I felt humiliation, and I felt very much alone.”
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who proposed the amendment, said the change in language would send a message to Nebraskans. The words “retard” and “retardation” have acquired negative meanings in society, he said.
Coash noted that Nebraska law once was peppered with references to “idiots,” “morons” and “imbeciles.” At one time, all were used by professionals and others to refer to people with intellectual disabilities.
The language change was attached to a bill aimed at bringing in more federal Medicaid money to bolster payment rates for care facilities for people with developmental disabilities, a term that includes people with intellectual disabilities.
The bill, as amended, was advanced to the second stage of debate.
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