The word “handicapped” is a word that comes with a lot of baggage. One common misconception is that the word “handicapped” originated in 1504 after a war in England which left many veterans disabled. King Henry VII was unable to picture these disabled veterans holding a job or contributing to society.
After King Henry VII came to this conclusion, he passed legislation that made it legal for disabled veterans to beg in the street. Now, disabled people could go out in the street with their “cap in hand” and beg for money, food and whatever else they needed to survive.
Despite the believability of this story, the term “handicapped” didn’t actually become used until the early 20th century during horse races. Before a race, the stronger horse would somehow be put at a disadvantage in an attempt to give the competitors equal circumstances. This is how the term became associated with “disadvantage,” and it didn’t take long for the term to be applied to people.
Fast forward to the 1990s, the term “handicapped” began to be viewed as a negative word toward people with disabilities. Even though there may not be a huge difference between the two words when you define them, there’s a slight difference in the wording that makes one accessible and one not. A “handicap” is a circumstance someone’s been given that makes success difficult. A “disability” is something that’s medically definable and limits the person in some way. For example, a blind person is disabled at a restaurant that doesn’t have a braille menu, but they aren’t when a restaurant does have an accessible menu.
What I find interesting is that it seems like nondisabled people feel more comfortable with using euphemisms such as “handicapped” or “differently abled” as an attempt to not offend people with disabilities, when in reality all euphemisms do is add to the fear and stigma that already exists around disability.
Many of these euphemisms carry connotations that make it seem like being disabled is a negative quality, according to another disabled writer on the Center for Disability Rights. These euphemisms tell disabled people they should be ashamed of their disability and that they can’t live independent and successful lives. When someone is labeled as handicapped, they’re told that they aren’t valuable members of society and that they don’t have any talents or skills to contribute to a job or to their schoolwork.
After the Americans with Disabilities act was passed in 1990, people began to redefine what disability meant, according to the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Over the past few years, this movement has only gotten bigger, and the disability community has begun to take back their identities as people. While there are some people who don’t mind disability euphemisms, others are speaking out against them and trying to educate nondisabled people on why they can be offensive. When the word “handicapped” is used, it takes away from any progress that’s been made in fighting for accessibility over the last few decades.
Even though the disabled have started speaking out more about accessibility and non-offensive terminology, we’re still horribly underrepresented both in the workforce and in the media. It’s just as important for nondisabled people to be allies for the disability community. This can be done by speaking out against offensive language, hiring disabled people and finding ways to make the world more accessible to those of us who need it.
The bottom line is that people with disabilities are people first and disabled second. If there needs to be some term used for this community, then saying something like the person who’s blind or the person in the wheelchair can come across as the least offensive way of referring to a person with a disability.
As a society, we ‘ve come a long way from where we started in the 20th and early 21st century, but we still have a long way to go. However, one thing that we can change today is how we refer to the disabled community. If this community is seen in a positive light, then more change will come, and this community can more easily lead successful lives.
Caroline O’Toole is a junior media arts and design major. Contact Caroline at email@example.com.