“Disabled” vs. “Handicapped”

By Cheryl Wade, BCF consultant

I’m going way, way out on a limb by saying what I’m about to say. I’m about to (partially) defy current language trends and perhaps the sentiments of a whole movement.

I’ve never liked the word “disabled” to describe us who are blind or who have some other condition or illness that makes it more difficult to function in society. I was a young adult when the world (as I knew it) switched from “handicapped” to “disabled. The word “disabled,” at that time, made me grimace. I thought of a car and driver sitting by the side of the road, with smoke coming out of the car hood and a hopeless expression on the driver’s face. It meant “sidelined,” “doesn’t run anymore,” or “broken.”

The word “handicapped” brought with it the idea that you’re so capable that you had to have your score cut. For example, you’re so good at bowling that you have to start out with a negative score or your pins will clobber somebody else’s. Part of the dictionary.com definition of the word states: a race or other contest in which certain disadvantages or advantages of weight, distance, time, etc., are placed upon competitors to equalize their chances of winning.

It wasn’t until I entered graduate school at age 54 that I learned one important reason for the wording change. “Handicapped” meant “cap in hand,” as though a person is begging for someone to put something in that cap. Most likely that something was money. And the poor person with the cap had to ask for money from others because he/she was too DISABLED to earn any. Wow! What a startling concept!

So, here I am, a trained rehabilitation counselor, someone who is supposed to be vigilant in the search for independence and complete equality for people with “disabilities.” I never used the word “handicapped” and I actually point the mistake out to people who still use it. I think that’s because I want to convey what we’re called by using the most modern, most cool and appropriate, word to describe our situation. People who work toward equality, and more importantly believe in their hearts that it is possible, use the word “disabled.” So I use it, too, based on what it means to the people at large with “disabilities.” But I’m still not crazy about the word “disabled,” and am even less crazy about the euphemistic “differently-abled” or “special-needs person.” I think I like the somewhat technical “functionally limited” to describe myself. It means there are things – functions – that I cannot do because I don’t have the visual equipment that’s part of nearly everyone else’s package. Sight just doesn’t come standard on my model. At any rate, this particular model isn’t stalled by the side of the road looking hopeless.

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