'Person-first' language change advances in New Haven

NEW HAVEN — The term ​“handicapped person” will be changed to ​“person with a disability” in city law as part of an advancing set of proposed terminology changes.

Alders took that step Tuesday night during the latest regular Board of Alders Legislation Committee meeting, which was held in person in the Aldermanic Chamber on the second floor of City Hall.

The four committee alders present for the meeting voted unanimously in support of a proposed ordinance amendment to ​“modernize city ordinances to reflect language that is respectful to people with disabilities,” as the title of the proposal puts it.

The proposed ordinance amendment, which can be read in full here and here, was submitted to the alders by city Disability Services Director Gretchen Knauff, who showed up with several members of the city’s Commission on Disabilities on Tuesday to pitch the aldermanic committee on the merits of the law change.

The proposed ordinance amendment recognizes ​“the power of language” and how ​“language changes our perceptions, or creates our perceptions, about people. That is especially true about people with disabilities,” Knauff said.

Previous legal language about people with disabilities often painted them as ​“less than human,” she said. It was designed to ​“create pity” and ​“low expectations.”

The legal and social and cultural shift towards ​“person-first language” looks to reverse that effect by recognizing people with disabilities as, first and foremost, people.

“We look at saying: You are a person with a disability, not a handicapped person,” Knauff said. ​“You are a person who is blind. You are a person with a mobility impairment. So that we are not talking about disability first.”

So. What does this proposal actually mean for the letter of local law?

Knauff said that the proposed ordinance amendment mostly changes decades-old legal references to a ​“handicapped” person instead to ​“a person with a disability.”

The proposal also changes existing local legal references from the outdated term ​“mental retardation” to the currently accepted term of ​“intellectual disability.”

These proposed changes ​“don’t change the intent of the statute,” she said. They ​“just modernize it to make it more respectful of people with disabilities.” She added that ​“these changes are not going to have any kind of fiscal impact.”

Westville Alder Adam Marchand asked Knauff if, besides the examples she had already cited, she and city attorneys have proposed any other common legal-term changes as part of this ordinance amendment.

“Most of it is changing terminology from ​‘handicap’ to ​‘disability’ or ​‘person with a disability,’ ” she said.

Knauff said that she left in the term ​“handicapped parking” because ​“that’s still common” and used across the state and the country. While state law now recommends using the term ​“reserved parking” rather than ​“handicapped,” she said, she decided to leave the term in local legislation out of a ​“recognition that that’s still there.”

Would this ordinance amendment require any changes to signs currently in place on city streets or in publicly owned buildings that contain references to ​“handicap,” Amity/Westville/Beaver Hills Alder and Majority Leader Richard Furlow asked.

No, Knauff said. She said that there is a state requirement that, if a municipality changes a parking space and adds a new sign, then it needs to ​“modernize signage” to say ​“reserved” rather than ​“handicapped.”

But unless and until that parking space or parking lot is modified, she said, no change to the signage has to take place.

“This is really modernization of the ordinances,” Knauff said. And the ordinance ​“does not require change to signage.”

During the public hearing portion of Tuesday’s meeting, city Commission on Disabilities Commissioner Robin Tousey-Ayers urged the committee to support the proposed ordinance language changes.

She said she’s been on the commission since 1999, and knows that municipalities across Connecticut look to New Haven as a leader because of ​“the work we do on behalf of people with disabilities. It’s quite above and beyond other localities in Connecticut.” She said this proposal, if approved, would help set a ​“benchmark for people to reach for.”

While addressing the alders on a different unrelated matter on Tuesday night, city Economic Development Administrator Michael Piscitelli said he was surprised to hear that the proposed ordinance change has a ​“parking exemption.” He promised to look into that and work with Knauff and city attorneys before the alders take a final vote on the proposal in the fall.

During the committee’s deliberations on the matter, Westville Alder Adam Marchand praised Knauff for her proposed ​“substantive change to the ordinance.”

“We should speak about people with disability as people who have disabilities, not that they are disabled people,” he said. ​“There’s a way to acknowledge their personhood. The disability is just a particular attribute that may or may not define them.”


More From This Section