Palatine attorney wants to do away with offensive words in Illinois law

  • Kerry M. Lavelle

    Kerry M. Lavelle

Updated 3/20/2011 5:01 PM

SPRINGFIELD -- Every time Palatine-based attorney Kerry Lavelle hears words offensive to the disabled, his ears perk up.

And not in a good way.


Lavelle's sister, Shannon, has a disability, and resides in Mount St. Joseph, an immediate care facility in Lake Zurich.

Partly for that reason, Lavelle says, every casual use of outdated terms to describe the disabled sets him "fuming." He wants to eliminate particularly offensive words from the American lexicon -- from the media, general conversation and the Internet.

That includes Illinois' law books, where the statutes don't always reflect society's most up-to-date terms.

So Lavelle proposed rewriting Illinois' statutes to replace every instance of "mentally retarded" with "intellectual disability" and every use of "crippled" with "physically disabled."

"These are two very archaic, bad, nondescriptive words," Lavelle says.

The result of Lavelle's plan: A 623-page piece of legislation being considered in the Illinois Senate. The legislation cleared a preliminary vote last week and awaits action from the full Senate.

Lavelle said changing terms in the law, though, is just a step toward his general goal.

"The bigger picture is changing people's attitudes on those words," he said.

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Lavelle takes such offense to the words that while he liked the idea of a news report about his efforts to eliminate them, he worried their use in the report would continue to spread their use.

"Every time it's used, it's used in a very derogatory fashion," Lavelle said.

The legislation is carried by Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, who is quick to give Lavelle credit for the idea.

"If we can use language that's less offensive to people, we ought to," Murphy said.

The Illinois criminal law books have been rewritten recently to streamline the thick, heavy books.

Sen. Kirk Dillard was on the commission that undertook that task. He said it's not a problem for others to come in and make big changes because technology makes drafting that 623-page bill much easier.


"We need to update our statutes periodically, including moving terminology into 21st-century terms," Dillard said.

Several states have already made similar changes, and the federal government switched terminology in its laws last year when President Barack Obama signed legislation called "Rosa's Law." Lavelle wasn't involved with those efforts, but took the plan to do the same in Illinois to Murphy.

Lawmakers could debate the legislation when they return to Springfield beginning March 29.