While browsing Pinterest, I found the sign accompanying this week’s column. I feel certain that the creators of this sign meant it to read, “Help Handicapped Children.” Surely there isn’t a group with the exclusive purpose of handicapping children.
The sign got me thinking about the proper use of words like “handicapped” and “disabled.” Many people use these words very seldom and are therefore confounded when having to select the correct term. I did a little research (the volume of material written about this subject is staggering), and here’s the advice I can give:
“Handicap,” as a noun, is most correctly used to describe a restriction a person encounters rather than a condition a person has. Numerous sources used an identical definition: “a physical or attitudinal constraint imposed upon a person, regardless of whether that person has a disability.”1 In other words, the handicap is temporary, whether it is a flight of impassable stairs or a rotten attitude. The term “handicapped” is considered offensive and should not be used to describe a person.
“Disability” is also repeatedly defined by various sources using the exact same wording: “a condition caused by accident, trauma, genetics or disease which may limit a person’s mobility, hearing, vision, speech or mental function.”1 A disability is a more permanent condition rather than an obstacle or limitation. The term “disabled” is preferable to “handicapped,” but the best way to refer to a person with a disability is just that: a person with a disability.
The main thing to remember is that the person, not the disability, should come first. In other words, it is more appropriate to say that a person has epilepsy than he or she is an epileptic. The placement of the disability and use of words of personhood are important in making clear that the people who have disabilities are people first.
In addition, it is also important not to refer to people of able bodies as “normal” by comparison to those who have disabilities. After all, what is normal to one person may not be normal to another. “Able-bodied” is a preferred term to “normal.”
I would be interested to hear input from readers who have more experience with this terminology; my research was done entirely through legal and grammatical documents, and I’d be interested in real-word applications, as long as those applications aren’t signs advocating the handicapping of children.
1Both definitions came from www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov, but exact copies of the definitions were found on numerous other Web sites.