Disability Terminology

People first language. We all know about it and use it regularly, right? It’s respectful and saying “person with a disability” is much better than using handicapped, right? After all, the word handicapped comes from the having a cap in hand to beg for change or a handout or charity, and nobody wants to be associated with that image. This word, “handicapped”, has the power to inspire anger and insult because of where it originated, or at least how we were told it originated. 

An article I read recently on Snopes.com, delved into the claim that “The word handicap comes from ‘cap in hand’ and refers to the physically disabled’s need to subsist as beggars.” In reality, the word’s origins have nothing to do with that.  I was a little embarrassed to admit that I had always just accepted the false definition; I never bothered to look into the etymology.

The article on Snopes gave a great, and accurate accounting for the terms “handicap(ped)” and “cap in hand.” In the end the question as raised about why people would accept a definition that can be so easily disproved with the conclusion reached that: “it’s far easier to convince folks to eschew a word if it can be tied to an offensive image than it is to get them to swear off based on mere preference of something else.” I have to admit when I learned about the true origin of handicapped, and how it had nothing to do with the false image of the person with a disability begging for a handout with a cap in their hand, I was angry.  This kind of propaganda seems wrong; isn’t it better to enact change through presentation of preference rather than lies, even if it’s harder?

There are a number of programs out there to force language change including, one of the most well funded being, End the R Word. This is a great program that lays out why people have this preference of wanting to end the “R” word.  In particular, End the R Word lets people know that “retard” and “retarded” are offensive terms, and in one of the ad campaigns likens it to other derogatory racial words.  The ad campaigns are educational and informative and get people to think more closely about the words that come out of their mouths.  The one thing to remember is that changing the meaning of a word or trying to get its use frequency reduced takes time, and in the case of educational campaigns, money.

There is also the push for “people first language.” People first language is finally being accepted and used in government and you hear the non-people first language less often now, but it has taken a lot of effort and advocacy to accomplish this.

What are your thoughts on these subjects? Do you use or prefer people-first language? What do you think of the term “handicapped” and its origins? Does that matter anymore? Below are some useful links related to the topics I brought up above.


3 thoughts on “Disability Terminology”

  1. Danny, what is the origin of the word? I had always thought it was something to do with the sporting term, a means of levelling the playing field, I hadn’t heard the cap in hand reasoning before.
    Also, by people first language, do you mean saying “a person with a disability” rather than “a disabled person”?

  2. As a person in the autumn of his life, I am truly not understanding the approach to people with hearing impairments (disabilities). Since 1998, I have had to live
    24/7 with Tinnitus/Hyperacusis/Recruitment and It’s not
    easy to deal with the environmental noise levels in today’s
    unreasonable world. I have to deal with stress and one
    Neurologist explained, He thought I had dementia, but
    two other neurologists disputed his diagnisis.
    From reading some of the research from leading Oto-Neurologists, there is no cure for Tinnitus/Hyperacusis.
    I just wished I could go to Washington D.C. and explain to the Congressman who support the OSHA Standare of
    85 decibiles in a work envoronment. Almost all of the hearing specialists I have contacted have told me, with
    my hearing impairment there is only two ways to seek treatment, 1) TRT – Tinnitus Retraining Therapy and use
    the Neuronomics Oasos Devoce. I have been using this device for about six months with little results. I am caught in a real dilemma. one I can not solve alone. Help!!!

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