During a recent training class, one of my students was sharing a story about how she was assisting a “handicapped” guy.
I was struck by the words she used, especially when she mentioned she was “helping him because he was suffering from a handicap.”
That’s when I knew I needed to say something.
As a disability advocate, I’m constantly reminded that people are rarely educated on this topic. This kind of language that we have all heard (and many of us use) is typically not done out of disrespect, but more out of a lack of education. This also gives us a wonderful opportunity to talk about the “H” word and demonstrate that having an honest conversation is nothing to be embarrassed about.
When we hear the word “handicapped,” most people think of a person with a disability. That’s what society has taught us to think. But what do you envision when you first think of the word? Most think about someone being in a wheelchair. But have you ever looked a little deeper? Do you see them as capable or successful? Do you view them as a fellow human being, or do you see something different from you?
What most people don’t realize is that the “H” word is universally unacceptable in most disability communities. Handicapped is generally considered a slur for several reasons.
The word implies inability. It’s a lot like the word “special” in the way that it can separate people. There’s nothing special about people with disabilities. They don’t need to be labeled as special. What they need is accommodations. With accommodations, they are just people. Every one of us needs different things to succeed in life. We are not special for that. We are all just different people with different needs.
Working in the disability community for many years, I can say with certainty that the very inception of the word handicapped leaves a bad taste in our mouths. There is little worthiness found with this word, except if we look back at the unsung heroes throughout history, who have wrapped themselves in the label like a banner when there was no other word to describe them. They lived, fought, and died defending their right to belong in a world trying so hard to eliminate them or hide them away.
Many believe the word handicapped comes from old-world England when the only way people with disabilities could survive was to sit on the side of the road with a “handy cap” held out for passersby to fill up with money out of pity. Not a very empowering legacy. And sadly, that is only part of our distant past.
Years ago, people with disabilities were not respected or cared for. Many were taken to institutions and homes, subjected to unimaginable cruelty. We didn’t see these children at school because they were never given the opportunity to go to school. We didn’t see them out playing because they were never given the chance to play. And, just like other groups of people who feel they have not been treated fairly for generations, there is a dark, dark history of how people with disabilities were treated in America.
But thankfully, people diagnosed with disabilities are now in schools. They are now going to college. They are now writing blogs and books, running companies, and sharing their valuable voices. They are now visible.
And none of them should be called handicapped.
One thing we often don’t realize is disability doesn’t discriminate. It can strike anyone at any time. It affects people of all social, economic, and cultural groups. It can happen to you, your friends, or your family members. At any age. It can be a fluke accident, a botched surgery, or an illness. No one is immune.
So why do we segregate an entire group of people by labeling them handicapped? Would you want to be called that if you had a disability? Or would you want to do your best to not allow your disability to restrict you from doing the things you wanted to do, and, in return, to not constantly be told you were unequal or less able?
Referring to someone as a handicapped person is also dehumanizing. It refers to the disability as a characteristic of the person’s identity. If you have to address it at all, what I suggest is rather than using the word handicapped, use the word “accessible” or “disabled/disability” or “differing abilities.” These terms even extend to parking spaces and restrooms. Saying “accessible parking” and not “handicapped parking” is always better. Saying “accessible restroom” instead of “handicapped restroom” is best. Even saying “disability services” or “accessibility services” is way better than “special education” or “special accommodations.”
What is now known as “People First Language” implies that the person’s disability is a part of them but doesn’t define them. It’s a language that places the person first, not the disability.
We are all people first. Being rich doesn’t define us, neither does being poor, college-educated, a high school dropout, overweight, or thin. Same with our ethnicity or religion. We are all human, and that alone defines us.
This subject is close to my heart. I am the mom of two children born with developmental disabilities. Growing up, my children had therapy, doctor visits, and specialist appointments five days a week. Staying on top of their schedules, appointments, medication refills, and homework given out by a team of therapists was a full-time job. Because their disabilities were considered hidden disabilities since they were not in wheelchairs or show signs of a physical disability, they experienced more than their fair share of ignorant questions, misunderstandings, and misperceptions.
As my children grew into adulthood, they became their own advocates. Their gifts and abilities were heightened when years of therapy provided them with ways of compensating for the delays they experienced as children. Although passionate, committed therapists helped prepare them for their bright futures, it could not prepare them for experiences with ignorant people.
My youngest, a college sophomore majoring in speech pathology, recently joined me for dinner. We were at a local neighborhood hangout and I ran into a colleague of mine, who represents non-profits that serve the disability community with her social media company. She is a bright, personable, successful woman. When I introduced her to my son, who she knew from previous conversations had disabilities, she immediately slowed her speech when she addressed him. She became louder and pronounced each word with great effort, as if he had difficulty understanding her. And to add insult to injury, she asked my 6’3”, 275-pound son if he was still in grade school.
It was a hurtful experience. But sadly, this is commonplace. We think, as a society, that we know how to treat all human beings. We really don’t. Any time we are segregating through our actions or words, we are practicing exclusion. Any time we are not including everyone, we are practicing exclusion. Inclusion requires intention to include everyone. Without judgment.
What my children (and many others who have been diagnosed with a disability) want us to know is that people are just people. People are not their diagnosis or their prognosis. And they most certainly are not their disability. Their disabilities are only a small part of who they are.
Although every human being is unique, it is important that we avoid portraying people with disabilities as overly courageous, brave, special, or superhuman. This makes it sound like it is unusual for people with disabilities to have talents, skills, or to live life like everyone else.
Different people prefer different terminology. If you aren’t sure which words to use, ask. The chances of you offending someone by asking are a lot smaller than if you don’t.
Ultimately, if you don’t want to offend someone, throw in a smile and just call them by their name.
“How a society treats its disabled is the true measure of a civilization.” ~ Chen Guangcheng