People-First, Not Disability-First: Bringing the Ohio Constitution and Ohio Revised Code Into the 21st Century

Photo by Ɱ via Wikimedia Commons

Jehanzeb Khan, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review[1]

I. Introduction

On January 13, 2021, Katherine Yoder, the Executive Director of the Adult Advocacy Centers, sent a letter to every member of the Ohio General Assembly regarding certain offensive language that exists in the Ohio Revised Code and the Ohio Constitution.[2] The Adult Advocacy Centers, based in Columbus, exist to educate individuals on empathizing and understanding the realities of people with disabilities.[3] The letter discussed how certain provisions within the Ohio Revised Code and Ohio Constitution still use harmful and offensive language towards people with disabilities.[4] While Ms. Yoder highlighted House Bill 158 that replaced references to “mentally retarded person” in the Ohio Revised Code, she noted that terms such as “idiot,” “deaf and dumb,” “mentally retarded,” “lunatics,” “mental defective,” “crippled child/children,” “derangement” and “handicapped,” still exist in the Code and Constitution and must be changed.[5]

Additionally, Ms. Yoder provided a list of the almost two dozen sections of the Ohio Revised Code and two sections of the Ohio Constitution that contain the aforementioned offensive language.[6] Furthermore, the letter provided a list of suggested changes members of the Ohio General Assembly could make to the Ohio Revised Code and Ohio Constitution respectively.[7] In addition to being offensive, Ms. Yoder affirmed that the terms are “rooted in historical trauma, stereotyping and oppression, which can easily result in additional, unnecessary harm for people with disabilities.”[8] This blog will further analyze the current language of the Ohio Revised Code and the Ohio Constitution and the proposed changes suggested by Ms. Yoder. Additionally, this blog will delve into the legal ramifications that may arise if the Ohio General Assembly adopted the suggested changes.

Part II of this blog will outline some of the specific language that the letter highlights as being problematic with suggested language that the Ohio Constitution and Revised Code could use instead. Part III will discuss why the Ohio General Assembly should implement the changes as provided in the letter in full. Lastly, Part IV will conclude with why making the aforementioned changes would be significant in a legal context.

II. Background

To begin, the letter highlighted certain language that exists in the Ohio Revised Code and Ohio Constitution that should be removed outright.[9] For example, a section of the Ohio Constitution uses the term “idiot” that the letter suggests should be eliminated without substitution.[10] Under the Ohio Revised Code, the letter called for three provisions that use the term “mental defective” in reference to a person to be removed outright as well.[11] Furthermore, the letter also highlighted a separate section of the Ohio Revised Code that uses the term “mental defective” as a noun in reference to a person and suggested that it be replaced with “under adjudication of incompetence.”[12]

At least eight sections of the Ohio Revised Code use the term “retarded” or “retardation” in various fashions which the letter suggested be replaced with either “individuals with developmental disabilities or mental health disorders,” “mental health disorders or intellectual and developmental disabilities” or simply be deleted without substitution depending on its grammatical usage in the Code.[13] Two sections of the Ohio Revised Code use the term “handicapped” in reference to a person and it is suggested that it be replaced with “individuals with disabilities.”[14] Two sections of the Ohio Revised Code use the term “crippled children” or “crippled child” and Ms. Yoder suggested that both be replaced with “child with a disability.”[15]

Only one section of the Code uses the term “dead and dumb persons” alone which is suggested to be replaced with “deaf persons” only.[16] One section of the Code also uses the term “lunatics” and the letter suggested that it be replaced with the term “individuals adjudicated to be incompetent.”[17] Furthermore, one section states “’Of unsound mind’ includes all forms of derangement or intellectual disability,” and the letter suggested that “‘of unsound mind’ means that the person lacks the relevant mental capacity” be substituted in place.[18] Finally, the Ohio Constitution uses the term “Institutions for the benefits of the insane, blind, and deaf and dumb,” and the letter suggested that it be replaced with “facilities for and services to persons who, by reason of disability, require care, treatment, or habilitation.”[19]

 It should be noted that the two sections of the Constitution that are mentioned in the letter,  Section 6 of Article V and Section 1 of Article VII, were both drafted in 1851 as part of the original Constitutional Convention.[20] The letter highlights twenty different provisions in total of the Ohio Revised Code that contain offensive language towards people with disabilities and that have been added and amended by various General Assemblies since the very first convention.[21] For example, the oldest provision highlighted by the letter is O.R.C. § 3335.31 that has been effective since 1961.[22] On the other hand, the latest provision highlighted from the letter is O.R.C. § 2923.125(D)(1)(i) that has been effective since 2018.[23]

III. Analysis

The Ohio General Assembly should unquestionably adopt all of the changes suggested by Ms. Yoder in the letter in full. Concerning the language of Article VII § 1 of the Ohio Constitution, the letter added a notable note to the members of the Ohio General Assembly.[24] The section in question concerns how facilities for the service of people with disabilities will be supported by the state of Ohio.[25] In addition to adding the suggested change to the section, Ms. Yoder added the following: “Note: It is fully recognized that the state of Ohio operates and funds institutions in Ohio and should continue to do so. Language substitution is being requested to respect individuals with disabilities, not to change the intent of the Constitution.”[26]

Although this note was only added to highlight Article VII § 1 of the Ohio Constitution, the note itself goes to the great purpose of the letter. Ms. Yoder and the Adult Advocacy Centers are not requesting for any of the legal protections for people with disabilities to change in the Ohio Constitution and Ohio Revised Code. As mentioned, the Ohio Constitution and Revised Code uses “antiquated terms [that] are rooted in historical trauma, stereotyping and oppression, which can easily result in additional, unnecessary harm for people with disabilities.”[27] Adopting the changes suggested in the letter would be a step in the right direction for people with disabilities in the state of Ohio without legally changing any of the protections that govern the aforementioned provisions.

As it stands, much of the language highlighted by the letter that exists in the Ohio Constitution and Ohio Revised Code are now considered outdated and offensive accord to the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) and the Associated Press (AP).[28] Foe example, the NCDJ purports that use of the term “defect” and other related terms when describing a disability is offensive since it implies the person is deficient or inferior to others.[29]

 Furthermore, President Obama in 2010 signed “Rosa’s Law” that replaced the term “mental retardation” in many federal laws.[30] Notably, “Rosa’s Law” specifies that it does not “change the coverage, eligibility, rights, responsibilities or definitions referred to in the amended provisions.”[31] If the federal government, over ten years ago, was able to successfully remove harmful language in federal laws without changing any coverage, there is no reason why the Ohio General Assembly cannot similarly make the linguistic changes necessary as mentioned in the letter.

The other problem with the provisions mentioned in the letter is that it uses language that is “identity-first” as opposed to “people-first.”[32] People-first language puts an emphasis on the individuality and dignity of people with disabilities, rather than emphasizing the disability itself.[33] The suggestions in the letter are desiring a change in the language from being “identity-first” to being “people-first.” Instead of using the phrase “handicapped persons” (antiquated term aside), which puts an emphasis on the identity, the letter instead suggests “individuals with disabilities” so as to put an emphasis on the person.[34] Again, changes like this, akin to “Rosa’s Law,” would not alter the intent or protection of any of the statutes or provisions in question, but simply demonstrate respect for people with disabilities.

IV. Conclusion

Some may argue that if the changes mentioned in the letter do nothing to alter the protections afforded to people with disabilities in Ohio, then making the changes is nothing but trivial. However, words that people commonly use and words that are used by our legal system are not trivial at all. That is why racial epithets that may have been commonly used in the 18th century are now viewed as pejoratives, slurs, and insults today. While language can at times change with social norms, language on its own is dynamic and cam guide the way modern society thinks and behaves too.[35]

Furthermore, the terms the Ohio legislature uses to refer to people with disabilities also shapes how the Ohio legal system views people with disabilities too. As it stands, the language in the Ohio Constitution and Revised Code suggests that the Ohio legal system views people with disabilities primarily by their disability while viewing their humanity as secondary.

Furthermore, it cannot even be said that the language is simply from an older period of time, where what was “appropriate” language for people with disabilities was not known. Thirteen of the Ohio Revised Code provisions in the letter were amened within the last ten years.[36] Ohio General Assemblies of recent years have amended some of the aforementioned provisions but made no adjustment to language that is deemed antiquated, outdated, offensive, and truly insulting to people with disabilities. It is time for this Ohio General Assembly to rectify past mistakes and enter the 21st Century.


[1] The author would like to thank Ms. Yoder, the Adult Advocacy Centers, and everyone who contributed to the letter for serving as the inspiration for this blog and for fighting for change for people with disabilities in Ohio.

[2] Tyler Buchanan, Advocates for people with disabilities want offensive Ohio laws rewritten, The Highland County Press (Jan. 27, 2021), https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/Headlines/Article/Advocates-for-people-with-disabilities-want-offensive-Ohio-laws-rewritten/2/73/64196. 

[3] We’re breaking new ground., Adult Advocacy Centers, https://www.adultadvocacycenters.org/about-us/#team (last visited Feb. 2, 2021).

[4] Letter from Katherine Yoder, Executive Director, to Ohio General Assembly (Jan. 13, 2021) available at https://www.adultadvocacycenters.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Derogatory_Language_Letter_1-13-2021.pdf.; for the duration of this blog, Katherine Yoder’s letter to the Ohio General Assembly will be referred to as “the letter.”

[5] Yoder, supra note 3.

[6] Buchanan, supra note 1.

[7] Yoder, supra note 3.

[8] Yoder, supra note 3.

[9] Id.

[10] Oh. Const. Art. V, § 6; Yoder, supra note 3.

[11] O.R.C. § 2923.1213(B)(1)(b), O.R.C. § 2923.125(D)(1)(i) and O.R.C. § 2923.13(a)(5); Yoder, supra note 3.

[12] O.R.C. § 2923.128(B)(1)(f); Yoder, supra note 3.

[13] O.R.C. § 154.02(A)(1), O.R.C. § 154.20, O.R.C. § 2945.491, O.R.C. §5119.70 Art. I, O.R.C. §5119.70 Art. IX (a)-(b), Art. XI, O.R.C. § 5123.021(A), (B)(1) & (C), O.R.C. § 5126.011, O.R.C. § 5165.03(A)(4) & (B)(2), and O.R.C. § 5709.45(H)(1); Yoder, supra note 3.

[14] O.R.C. § 3335.51, O.R.C. § 3501.29(B)(1)(a)-(b), (C), (D)(2) and (F); Yoder, supra note 3. It should be noted that O.R.C. § 5153.16(A)(6) refers to the “bureau for children with mental handicaps” with the suggested replacement be in reference to the state department name called “Children with Mental Handicaps Program.”

[15] O.R.C. § 3113.55 and O.R.C. § 5153.16(A)(6); Yoder, supra note 3.

[16] O.R.C. § 1743.05; Yoder, supra note 3.

[17] O.R.C. § 4961.08; Yoder, supra note 3.

[18] O.R.C. § 1.02(C); Yoder, supra note 3.

[19] Oh. Const. Art. VII, § 1; Yoder, supra note 3.

[20] Oh. Const. Art. V § 6 and Oh. Const. Art. VII § 1.

[21] Yoder, supra note 3.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Oh. Const. Art. VII, § 1.

[26] Yoder, supra note 3.

[27] Id.

[28] Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism, https://ncdj.org/style-guide/ (last visited Feb. 12, 2021).

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Rosa’s Law, Pub. L. No. 111-265, 124 Stat. 2643.

[32] People-First Language, Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion, https://askearn.org/topics/retention-advancement/disability-etiquette/people-first-language/ (last visited Feb. 6, 2021).

[33] Id.

[34] Yoder, supra note 3.

[35] See Labib Rahman, Disability Language Guide, Stanford Disability Initiative Board (July 2019), https://disability.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj1401/f/disability-language-guide-stanford_1.pdf.

[36] Yoder, supra note 3.