Evers’ first law replaces antiquated language with newer, inclusive terms

Law requires state rules, agencies to update language


©2019 Clara Neupert

One example of universal design in action on campus are “curb cuts.” Curb cuts are the sloping edges of sidewalks that replace the traditional 90-degree-angled curbs.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers signed his first bill into law last Tuesday. The law replaces antiquated and derogatory terms like “handicapped” with “disabled” in state regulations.

The bill was premised by Evers’ executive order to increase the inclusivity of individuals with disabilities, which he signed on March 12. The bill directed state agencies to review their administrative rules and replace antiquated, derogatory language with updated terms. State agencies were given 90 days after the publication of the executive order to review and change their documents.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction had already updated the wording on their website prior to the bill, according to Marci Glaus, a spokesperson for the organization. Now, they are sifting through older documents to make sure the language is in agreement with the law.

Wording in the rules at the University of Wisconsin System should be up-to-date as well, said Spokesperson Mark Pitsch.

“After initial review,” Pitsch said, “we believe we are in compliance and no changes are needed.”

Emelia Holle, a first-year psychology student at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said the legislation is impactful because words have power.  

“When you have inclusive language that is more OK to say around everyone, it is more welcoming and inviting,” Holle said. “And making sure people know that you are OK with them and you respect them and you want them to be there.”

An act in 2012 deleted offensive phrases from all state statutes. However, the terms remained in the state’s administrative codes and rules, hence the need for the bill.

An initial bill to rephrase documents was introduced to the state assembly on Jan. 22. Rep. John Jagler (R-Watertown) and Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) both spoke on behalf of the bill.

“Having a daughter with Down syndrome, I know how hurtful the ‘R’ word can be. Removing this phrase from statute in 2012 was a good start, but I believe we can do better,” Jagler said in a press release. “Our administrative code shouldn’t contain terms that would make others not feel included or make them feel like they are not as valuable as their neighbors. Updating the terminology will go a long way into making our state government more respectful of its citizens with disabilities.”

Vicky Thomas, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Services for Students with Disabilities, said updating the language in state documents and rules is a starting point for inclusivity. UW-Eau Claire already utilizes the most current language, Thomas said. The wording in brochures, the website and in policies is periodically checked for outdated expressions.

“We want all people to feel included and treated with equity and fairness,” Thomas said.

Thomas said she noticed the legislation fails to mention “person-first language.” This language places emphasis on a person instead of their abilities. For example, person-first language would replace “an intellectually disabled person” with “a person with an intellectual disability.”

Though the university is up to date with proper wording, Thomas said there are still areas in need of improvement.

Using the concept of universal design in everyday life is paramount, Thomas said. Universal design is when a space, environment or product is accessible to everyone, no matter their age, ability or other facets of their identity. Thomas said using universal design benefits everyone.

One example of universal design in action on campus are “curb cuts.” Curb cuts are the sloping edges of sidewalks that replace the traditional 90-degree-angled curbs. Thomas says curb cuts make navigation easier for everyone: people using wheelchairs, folks rolling carts across campus or people who have difficulty stepping up and down stairs.

“So many times,” Thomas said, “the things that we can do to help a person that’s challenged with a disability are similar to things that other people feel challenged by.”