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So What’s Wrong with the Word “Handicapped”?
April 2018 — By Chas Barrie
If you browse the internet you will find many articles about the history of the word “handicapped”. It has been suggested by many that the word originated with the disabled having to beg for a living. For example, David Mikkelson (2011) writes: “People have been saying ‘”handicapped”’ for years. Since 1504, in fact”.
Mikkelson suggested one belief for the origin of the word has been: “In 1504, after a brutal war in England, King Henry VII had an idea. King Henry knew that the war had left his country with a great number of disabled veterans. And King Henry, who unfortunately had skipped his REELife Solutions [not a trademark, thank God] training session that morning, could not envision disabled veterans being able to hold a job, or contribute to society.
So King Henry VII passed some landmark legislation. He proclaimed that begging in the streets be legal for people with disabilities. So into the streets, with their “cap in hand”, went King Henry’s disabled veterans, to beg for money”. So with cap in hand referred to beggars, or people of no value in society.
The term is also used in horseracing and wagering. It measures the superiority of one contestant over another. This is the belief that one participant is stronger or better than another. The word “handicap” is rating one thing better or worse than another.
It appears that “handicapped” seems to have begun to describe a wide range of disadvantages, including social, economic and even moral standards. The website by Arika Okrent (2015) reports: “Handicap began to be applied to physical and mental differences in the early 1900s, when the new fields of sociology and social work started looking at people in terms of their place in society as a whole”. The term was used to describe people viewed as physically or mentally flawed.
The 1964 Americans Civil Rights Act gave inspiration to people with disabilities. By the 1970’s changes were developing and terms like cripple, lame, gimp and a host of others became offensive terms because they focused on a person’s deficits rather than the person themselves. Over time, “Handicapped” began to be replaced by the term disabled. By 1990 this movement for equal rights brought about The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).The purpose of the ADA and accessibilities is to level the playing field and to remove the need for so called “handicapping” and gives everyone an equal chance to demonstrate their skills and talents.
Additionally, using the word “handicapped” to describe a parking spot, bench at the park, or bathrooms doesn’t make any sense. Is there something wrong with the parking spot or bathroom? No, it is an “accessible” spot not one that has been handicapped.
Realistically, life is not a horse race and people with disabilities are just that, people. Those with disabilities are far from being beggars or useless individuals. Society and culture seem obsessed with labeling everything, including each other. Unfortunately, many of the old terms and cultural ideologies still remain. And the words we use perpetuate our view of reality, even if subconsciously. After over twenty-five years since the passage of the ADA, regardless of which origin we choose to accept for the word “handicapped”, for many, is a term with unfavorable connotations of that useless beggar in the street, or a less superior person.
Today, there is even a shift from using the word “disabled” to placing people first. Rebecca Atkinson (2015) blogs that: “Cripple, deaf-mute and lame all fell out of favor a long time ago and are now considered insults. By the 1980s and 90s “handicapped” was gradually replaced with “disabled” as a new way of thinking about disability emerged – called the social model. Attitudes change and as a consequence so does language”. With the shift to people first language it has now become “people with disabilities” as opposed to “disabled people”.
More and more the focus is beginning to be on “ability” rather than dis-ability. Once again Atkinson describes: “The definition of “dis” in one English dictionary is to ‘”have a primitive, negative or reversing force”’. To discredit. To disengage. And in recent parlance “’diss’”, with an extra s, has been popularized as an abbreviation of disrespect – “’Don’t diss me.’”
For now the “people first campaign” is spreading, and hopefully soon we will first recognize people for what they can do. People with disabilities can and do have talents which are often not being utilized.
Atkinson, Rebecca. (2015). Viewpoint: Is it time to stop using the word “disability”? Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-ouch-34385738
Mikkelson, David. (2011). Etymology of Handicap: Did the word ‘handicap’ originate with the disabled’s having to beg for a living? Retrieved from: https://www.snopes.com/language/offense/handicap.asp,
Okrent, Arika. (2015). Why Did ‘Disabled’ Replace ‘Handicapped’ As the Preferred Term? Retrieved from: http://mentalfloss.com/article/69361/why-did-disabled-replace-handicapped-preferred-term