Why Handicapped is Not Cool

by Juney Kainulainen

The word "handicapped" was first used in Great Britain after the Crimean War. Medicine had advanced to a point where large numbers of soldiers were returning home with injuries that would have proved fatal in earlier wars. To aid the severely disabled men, Parliament made it legal for war veterans to beg on the streets; they could keep a "cap handy" to accept donations from passersby; thus, the word “handicapped.”

Because the word "handicapped" implies making beggars out of people with disabilities, the term is no longer acceptable. The preferred term is "people with disabilities" (M.A. Hickman, ALRID). There is a difference between "handicapped" and "disability."

Disability is a condition, either emotional or physical. A handicap is the cumulative result of obstacles, which a disability interposes between individuals and their maximum functional level. Therefore, not all disabilities are handicaps. A person using a wheelchair is not handicapped in an environment where there are not steps. A person who is deaf is not handicapped when using a TDD. People who are blind are not handicapped in jobs where they use voice-output computers. The real handicap is often the built environment, e.g., stores with steps into them, inaccessible taxis.

Often the built environment is the severe handicap. Such environments limit participation, productivity, integration, independence, and equality. If a person using a wheelchair cannot accept a job because it is on the second floor and there is no elevator, the real handicap is that there is no elevator. If someone cannot attend school because there are no ramps or curb cuts, the real handicap is no physical access to an education.

In using language, we can choose to emphasize people's similarities or differences. The term "disabled person" is a sloppy short cut to the more psychologically sound expression, "person with a disability." The latter places the person first, not the disability. Placing the disability first distorts and undermines who people with disabilities are and how they want to be seen. We don't refer to people with broken legs as "broken-leg people!"

A woman experiencing polio, using a wheelchair, can also be a mother, a wife, an executive, a student, a board member, a gifted public speaker, etc. A man who has cerebral palsy is not a "vegetable!" Although he may have a severe disability, he may also be extremely mentally able, a contributing, productive member of society, e.g., Stephan Hawking, probably the most famous living scientist, author of the book, A Brief History of Time.

You won't find a word "handicapped" in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or any of its supporting documents. Nor will you find the word "special." Although the term is used in descriptions such as Special Education and Special Olympics, it is seen as patronizing and distancing. "Special" is the euphemism of segregation. The drafters of the ADA and the disability community are saying, "We want to change the image of people with disabilities and the environment." A parking space that is accessible allows a person using a walker or a wheelchair to exit with enough room to maneuver; it does not handicap people with disabilities! Those signs should say "Accessible Parking" instead of "Handicapped Parking."

Help change the 19th century language habits. Increase equal treatment, community awareness, acceptance, and access. Be concerned: take the time to be vigilant about your own language. Language does play an important role in shaping ideas and attitudes.

"Our words affect our thoughts
Our thoughts affect our beliefs
Our beliefs affect our feelings
Our feelings affect our behavior and
Our behavior affects our world"
         --(Shirley Devol VanLieu)

This article is borrowed from June Isaacson Kailes' writing “Language is More Than a Trivial Concern.”