Cut outdated terms from North Dakota's constitution? Voters will decide

Lawmakers unanimously approved the measure, which would replace terms like "feebleminded," "deaf and dumb" and "insane" with more modern nomenclature.

North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Forum photo by Darren Gibbins
North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck.
Forum file photo

BISMARCK — Most North Dakotans wouldn't use terms like "feebleminded," "deaf and dumb" or "insane" to describe people with disabilities or mental illness, but the outdated language is still featured in the state Constitution. Voters will have the opportunity to change that next year.

The state House of Representatives and Senate unanimously passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 4001, which would change references in the constitution from:

  • A “school for the deaf and dumb” to a “school for the deaf and hard of hearing.”
  • A “state hospital for the insane” to a “state hospital for the care of individuals with mental illness.”
  • An “institution for the feebleminded” to a “facility for individuals with developmental disabilities.”

Since constitutional amendments require a public vote, the measure will appear on the statewide ballot in 2024.
Some of the phrases lawmakers hope to eliminate date back more than a century.

The original constitution approved at statehood in 1889 created a “deaf and dumb asylum” in Devils Lake, though voters approved a measure 15 years later that changed the institution’s name to the “school for the deaf and dumb of North Dakota.” A website for the facility calls it the School for the Deaf.

Voters approved a measure in 1904 to establish an “institution for the feebleminded” in Grafton. The facility in the northeastern corner of the state is now called the Life Skills and Transition Center on its website, but the old name remains in the constitution.


Rep. Kathy Frelich, a Devils Lake Republican who works at the School for the Deaf, said the measure provides "a great opportunity here to replace the outdated terminology with words that are more accurate and respectful."

Sen. Kristin Roers, R-Fargo, referred to the existing constitutional language as "terms that make me cringe to even say them."

In its original form, the resolution would have changed "deaf and dumb" to "deaf and hearing impaired.” The Senate amended the language to "deaf and hard of hearing" after Tammy Derrick, a deaf Bismarck resident, told Forum News Service in January that the deaf community no longer uses the term “hearing impaired” because it implies people are deficient due to their inability to hear.

Lawmakers also are considering proposed constitutional measures to legalize sports betting, to water down legislative term limits, to allow for longer legislative sessions and to set a higher bar for citizen-initiated constitutional measures.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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