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Congress Votes to Remove “Lunatic” from Federal Law

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

On Dec. 5, 2012, Congress passed legislation to remove the word “lunatic” from federal law. The bill now goes to President Obama for signature.

The House of Representatives voted 398-to-1 to pass the measure. The Senate passed it unanimously in May 2012.

In 2010, Congress also voted to remove the term “mental retardation” from federal law, recognizing that such language is often obsolete, imprecise and fosters stigma and prejudice.

Senators Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), and Michael Crapo (R-Idaho) sponsored the legislation. NAMI, along with other mental health groups supported the bill.

Senator Conrad, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, noted that in one instance, existing federal law authorizes a “committee of estates of lunatics” on guardianship issues.

Language matters. The legislation represents a major symbolic step forward in removing stigma from federal law and may serve as a precedent. While applauding the bill’s passage, supporters have noted that the words “idiot” and “mental defectives” are still found in federal statutes. Some federal statutes are over 100 years old and are a difficult thicket to review.

“Lunatic” is derived from the Latin word for moon. In ancient times, people believed that a person could become “moonstruck” by lunar movements. Myths arose about mental illness coinciding with the full moon.

U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) was the only person to vote against the bill, based on frustration with the budget debate in Congress. “Not only should we not eliminate the word ‘lunatic’ from federal law when the most pressing issue of the day is saving our country from bankruptcy,” he said, “we should use the word to describe the people who want to continue with business as usual in Washington.”

Senate Vote on UN Disability Treaty Falls Short

By Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

On Dec. 4, 2012, the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which includes mental illness.

Under the Constitution, a two-thirds vote (66 votes) is required for ratification of an international treaty. Supporters of the treaty fell four votes short. Thirty-eight Senators voted against it.

All of the opponents were Republicans—but eight Republicans crossed party lines to vote for the treaty to give bipartisan support. Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole who was wounded and partially disabled during World War II also lobbied for the treaty.

Dole was the sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that today serves as the legal foundation for the rights of people with disabilities in the United States. Opponents of the treaty argued that the ADA is sufficient for American leadership on disability issues and that the treaty would undermine national sovereignty and undermine the rights of parents; a claim which supporters argued was based on misinformation.

The United Nations General Assembly passed the treaty in 2006. The United States signed it in 2009, but ratification by the Senate is necessary for it to come into force. Currently, 126 nations have ratified the treaty.

The purpose of the treaty is to promote and protect the human rights of persons with disabilities in all countries and equality under law. It includes commitment to public awareness campaigns to eliminate stigma and prejudice.

The Senate is expected to try again to ratify the treaty in the next Congress in 2013-2014.

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