Mark Pocan speaks to reporters 5-31-22 (copy)

A bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, pictured here, would eliminate the term "mentally retarded" from federal law. 

We all know that social media posts can be cruel, that they can perpetuate awful stereotypes and insult the dignity of vulnerable individuals.

But it’s even worse when the government does the same thing.

Currently, the U.S. Code includes more than two dozen instances where the phrase “mentally retarded” is inserted into federal law. The code clearly needs updating to bring its language into line with the better sensibilities of the 21st century — and with basic human decency.

Thankfully, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan recognizes the need to set things right.

Last week, the town of Vermont Democrat introduced the Words Matter Act, which proposes to update the U.S. Code to remove the offensive language.

“This bill just makes sense,” explains Pocan. “Federal law should reflect the time in which we live and not include harmful words or slurs. The Words Matter Act will modernize our laws, and remove offensive language from the U.S. Code. I thank my colleagues from both sides of the aisle for joining this effort to update our laws in a manner that is respectful of every American. I look forward to this bill’s immediate passage so we can retire this language once and for all.”

The need for immediate action was summed up by one of the senior members of the House, U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the veteran civil rights campaigner who for more than three decades has represented the District of Columbia in the House.

“Words indisputably matter, and I’m proud to be a lead co-sponsor of Rep. Pocan’s bill,” says Norton. “My own daughter, Katherine, has Down syndrome. I’m appalled at the thought of someone using the word ‘retarded’ toward her, and it is inexcusable that the word is still part of the U.S. Code. Our country is better than this, as passage of Rep. Pocan’s bill will show.”

That’s a sentiment shared by advocacy groups that have endorsed the Words Matter Act, including the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, the National Down Syndrome Society, the Global Down Syndrome Foundation and the Special Olympics.

Pocan sponsors a lot of vital legislation, and he often attracts support from nonpartisan advocacy groups. But in the hyperpartisan House, that does not always guarantee that the legislation will be enacted. Especially in the current House, the deep divide between progressive Democrats and the right-wing Republican leadership of the chamber frequently thwarts passage of even the most well-intended and necessary proposals. But this bill has a real chance of being approved by the 118th Congress and signed by President Biden.

For one thing, the Words Matter Act completes a process that has already begun. In 2010, President Obama signed “Rosa’s Law,” which replaced the term “mental retardation” with “intellectual disability” in federal statutes. “Unfortunately,” as Pocan’s office notes, Rosa’s Law “failed to replace the equally offensive term ‘mentally retarded’ from federal law. The Words Matter Act does that.”

But there is more than simple logic at work here.

To advance this bill, Pocan has done what too few House members do. He has reached across lines of partisanship and ideology to build an unlikely coalition of House members who recognize the logic.

While Pocan is one of the most progressive Democrats in the House, he has aligned with some of the most conservative Republican members of the chamber, such as Texas Republican Pete Sessions, to advance the Words Matter Act.

“I am the proud father of a Down syndrome young adult and Eagle Scout,” says Sessions. “Those who know my son regard him as an able, loving, and accomplished young man, whose abilities far outnumber his disabilities. I am confident that the ‘Words Matter Act’ will bring us one step closer to ushering our U.S. Code into the present. While this change is long past due, I am pleased to be a lead co-sponsor of this bipartisan legislation which amends dated language to ‘intellectual disability’ for federal laws. Those with Down syndrome are a blessing from God and deserve to be respected as such.”

This is no small matter to Pocan and the group of cosponsors he has assembled — including Washington Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the powerful chair of House Energy and Commerce Committee who formerly led the House Republican Conference

“My oldest son Cole has Down syndrome. From the day he was born, I watched as others tried to limit his potential," explains Rodgers. "But Cole has refused to let his extra 21st chromosome define him, defying his doubters at every turn. In America, we are not defined by the condition of our birth, and it’s well-past time the text of our nation’s laws reflect that. The use of outdated and derogatory language in previously written law fails to treat individuals with disabilities with the dignity and respect they deserve. I’m confident the Words Matter Act will prove that our country knows better by bringing the laws of our land into the 21st century and setting a new standard for the way we speak about others in America.”

Congress rarely works as well as it should, and that has been especially true in the 118th Congress. But Pocan and his cosponsors are reminding us that progress is possible when members put basic human decency ahead of rank partisanship and blank-stare ideology.

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