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Meg Casey's handicapped issues column

The word "handicapped"

Meg Casey
December 15, 1982

Dear Meg,

I didn't have to think twice about what question I would ask you. Every time I hear someone referred to as "handicapped" I positively cringe. How did the world come to have the widely accepted usage that it does today in relation to "human beings?"

There has to be a better word than that.

From K.M. Milford

Dear K.M.

Good question … I haven’t the faintest idea. …

I must admit though, if someone were to ask my preference of terms, that probably wouldn't be it.

Not that it is a bad word in itself. I mean I could take it or leave it. It is the soured connotations that society lends to the word "handicapped" as it at has so many other words in the English language which might be found objectionable.

This was a fun question to research. I've enjoyed checking different dictionaries and listening to various people's theories and subject. (Let me tell you, there're a lot of weird people on go on this planet and a good portion of them live in this town!)

One theory that made sense was that this choice was made in the same spirit as your objection now. "Handicapped" sounded better than the word "crippled" which was its forerunner. I checked both Webster's and Funk and Wagnall’s for clues to this mystery but only came up with "sporting" answers and no definative leads to the application we're seeking.

Funk and Wagnall

  1. A race or contest in which disadvantages are imposed on superior contestants or advantages given to those of inferior ability, so that each may have a chance of winning.
  2. One of the conditions stipulated; esp. a disadvantage.
  3. Any disadvantage - v.t., capped, -cap.ping
    1. to serve as a hindrance or disadvantage to
    2. to assign handicaps in a race (horse race)

Webster

  1. Figuratively any disadvantage that renders success more difficult.

To some people life is like a game so perhaps so perhaps that is why a gaming term is used for person who must play out his or her life with some physical disadvantage. No insult initially intended, Just points given.

I next checked Roget’s Thesaurus to see what other options are available to us. Here's what I found:

  • Handicap – Penalize, encumber, inconvenience, burden, hamper, see hindrance.

    Which I did, and read through a list of a few hundred like works before coming to the words handicapped and cripple. Personally I don't think much of the above either.

    It could be worse. In England they used to refer to the disabled as the "Spastics society!" Other said "Ah. What's in a name? Sticks and stones …”

    The trouble is you never please everyone. There will always be those who will be thinking “cripple" or is what they are mouthing. Now my father used to say "Call me anything except late for dinner!"


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