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Handicapped vs. Disabled:

Edwin Battistella's Bad Language p. 98 (2005) explains the supposed superiority of "disabled" over "handicapped":

[O]ne can argue that disabled is the optimal choice on the basis of conciseness, accuracy, politeness, and connotation.... The term handicapped ... carries the connotation of being held back in some competitive enterprise (we talk of social handicaps, golf handicaps, and racing handicaps) and is unwelcome by some people with disabilities.

I've heard this argument from others as well.

But wait: The term disabled carries the connotation of not being able, which surely holds one back in various enterprises, competitive and otherwise. In fact, if you're looking at the connotations that stem from the word's visible etymology, "handicapped" seems more favorable — it suggests that someone's path is harder because of the burden under which he labors, but it does not suggest that he's not able. Horses or golfers who labor under heavy handicaps may sometimes win. Horses or golfers who are disabled (in the literal sense) don't win.

Now etymology, even visible etymology, will only carry you so far; there are other aspects to this issue, which I've touched on elsewhere (here and here). But if one does focus on visible etymology, it seems to me that "handicapped" should be the superior term.

Dave N (mail):
The explanation I heard once was that the root of "handicap" came from "hand in the cap." While dictionary.com supports this as the root, the explanation was that "hand in cap" was synonymous with having one's hand and cap out in order to beg for alms.

However, the dictionary defintion points to a more benign origin--going back to a game in which a hand was literally in a cap.

Frankly, I don't think either "handicapped" or "disabled" is perjorative--and I get rather annoyed when a perfectly good word is discouraged because someone has now decreed the word is not politically correct.
2.7.2008 1:08am
rlb:
I still say "crippled."
2.7.2008 1:11am
Oren:
I personally prefer handicrooked but I'm really just miffed at the waste of 5 parking spots in an overfull lot.
2.7.2008 1:31am
EH (mail):
Frankly I've been using "handicapable" for so long I forgot about all the others. Ba-dum-bum.
2.7.2008 2:15am
Eugene Volokh (www):
The "cap in hand" etymology is spurious, as I mention here.
2.7.2008 2:26am
Peter Metcalfe (mail):
Anyone for "retarded"? It avoids the etymological issues that handicap lame cripple disable make the other candidates eligible for special assistance.
2.7.2008 2:53am
THJC (mail):
I prefer "handicapped" with its connotation of having to an carry extra burden.
"Disabled" sounds like you can't do anything. To be sure, some handicaps are so severe that they are disabling but sometimes society imposes disabilities on the handicapped.

Maybe we should just give up on a one-word label for millions of people with dozens of different conditions?
2.7.2008 3:32am
Porkchop:
Clearly you are not keeping up with the times. I have been instructed (I'm not kidding) that the new preferred term is "differently abled."
2.7.2008 7:25am
PersonFromPorlock:
It's all magical thinking of the "the name has power over the thing" sort. Come up with an entirely new word for it - call it "moppiated" - and in a little while people who don't like the reality will want to change the symbol, again.
2.7.2008 7:31am
gasman (mail):
Sounds like some people just want to wallow in their own condition, and they won't be satisfied until they have every one of us groveling too.
My differently abled condition (5' 6" tall) prevents me from playing college or pro ball. I could use the courts as a blunt instrament to handicap other players by requiring those over 6' to wear ankle chains to restrict their movement, but instead I have learned to accept my condition. But even in cognitive work, there seems a bias toward taller folk having greater incomes. And their height comes not from any merit, but through fluke of nature and chance of parentage; perhaps we could level things with some income redistribution.
2.7.2008 8:07am
Alan Gunn (mail):
There's an interesting post on languagehat.com for February 1, defending the occasional replacement of old terms for people who get dumped on by new ones. I'm only partly convinced, but it's an interesting and thoughtful take on the subject.
2.7.2008 8:10am
AnneS (www):
You're all behind the times. It's "person with a disability" or "person with a handicap". That way, you're not defining people by their disability first and personhood second.

Seriously, though, etymology aside, words used to describe things that are negative or perceived as negative acquire stigmatizing connotations over time. It happened to "retarded", some feel it happened to "handicapped", it will happen to "disabled". It will also happen to "person with [pick your disability]". See also, "bipolar" vs. "manic-depressive" and "Oriental" vs. "Asian". It is usually the perfect example of magical thinking to think that changing the words will change the way people feel about it.
2.7.2008 8:18am
Temp Guest (mail):
Proper PC terminology is an endless game of gotcha played by kneebiters. I say endless because my experience has been that sooner or later the rules of the game come full circle and the absolutely unacceptable term, e.g., Black, becomes the most acceptable; and then, of course, the cycle recurrs.

I work in a PC environment and love to shock and annoy the powers-that-be by using the "totally unacceptable" terminology of two years ago and then defending myself with an official memorandum from days of yore that absolutely requires use of the currently unacceptable terminology.
2.7.2008 8:22am
Elliot Reed (mail):
As a disabled person who dislikes "handicapped", I agree that this etymological argument is not a good one. Unfortunately, this is at root a dispute about connotation, and the problem with disputes about connotations is that they seem to be impossible to resolve. To a person who sees a connotation, it's so obvious that it's hard to explain how you know it's there; to a person who doesn't see it, the people who claim there is one are making a big deal out of nothing, or seeing things that just aren't there. I have yet to find a way to decide whether or not a connotation exists that doesn't depend on Just Seeing It or Not Seeing It. And so people resort to spurious arguments, like this one.

re "differently abled"—I have never heard anyone actually use this term, except to mock alleged political correctness. It's like "womyn" and "ebonics" in that respect: a small group of linguistically challenged people decided it would be a good term a long time ago, it was a total failure as a piece of terminology, including among us left-wing PC-types, right-wingers insist on perpetuating a mythology of actual use of these terms.

Seriously, though, etymology aside, words used to describe things that are negative or perceived as negative acquire stigmatizing connotations over time. It happened to "retarded", some feel it happened to "handicapped", it will happen to "disabled". It will also happen to "person with [pick your disability]". See also, "bipolar" vs. "manic-depressive" and "Oriental" vs. "Asian". It is usually the perfect example of magical thinking to think that changing the words will change the way people feel about it.
Agreed, except for the bit about "magical thinking. The point of this phenomenon (switching terms around to avoid words with stigmatizing connotations) isn't that changing the words changes how people feel about things—it's that changing the words away from terms with stigmatizing connotations (and then doing it again as the next set of terms acquires those connotations, etc.) helps to identify those who have prejudiced attitudes by identifying those who don't care about the negative connotations of the old term, so as to enable the stigmatization of the prejudiced.
2.7.2008 8:48am
David Stras:
As someone who is disabled (as defined by the ADA) but certainly not to the extent of others, I wonder how much of the current terminology in this specific context (as opposed to black vs. African-American) is due to the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act made extensive use of the word "disability" to define the class of people who required "reasonable accommodations"? Had the ADA used the term "handicap" for example, would it have continued to enjoy widespread usage? I am no student of the history of disabilities or the ADA, but it seems to me that perhaps the ADA legitimized usage of that word or at least made it a convenient and acceptable way to refer to those with significant physical limitations. As between handicap and disability, however, I must confess that I personally don't care which term is used, though others may feel differently.
2.7.2008 8:58am
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
I hear "differently abled" a lot. My aunt uses it about her grandson who was born without a corpus callosum. I hear it from time to time from the mouths of professionals who deal with autistic people. I wonder if it's more common among a certain set of disabilities, i.e. cognitive ones.
2.7.2008 9:01am
Elliot Reed (mail):
David Stras: I think the fact that it's the ADA rather than the AHA was an effect of this phenomenon rather than a cause. The use of "disabilities" rather than "handicaps" was the result of prodding by the disability activists who were pushing for the ADA.
2.7.2008 9:08am
John M. Perkins (mail):
With poor eyesight, I'm disabled.
With glasses, magnifying glasses, a large screen option when I voted electronically Tuesday, I have handicaps.
I also carry a 36 stroke golf handicap because they cap it at 36.

A cripple is disabled.
Canes, walkers, wheelchairs, elevator, ramps and parking spaces are handicaps.
2.7.2008 9:09am
Al Maviva (mail):
I have been "corrected" by disability rights advocates for referring to disabled veterans. I find this amusing because although the ADA protects "people with disabilities," various acts establishing a legal classification and providing benefits for veterans who have service-connected disabilities use the term of art, "disabled veterans." It actually means something quite different from the ADA's definition of an individual with a disability; a former servicemember may have some impairment that does not rise to the level of a disability under the ADA or Rehabilitation Act of 1974, but which is treated as a disability under laws governing active duty servicemembers and veterans. For example a servicemember who has a bum knee may actually be a 'disabled veteran,' even though he is not impaired in a major life activity.

And so the Gramscian assault on language continues.

I will ask again - why do we use the term "political correctness." Doesn't this concede to advocates of self-censorship that lawful thoughts and speech are necessarily wrong?
2.7.2008 9:39am
Richard Nieporent (mail):
Not surprisingly Shakespeare said it best:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
2.7.2008 9:43am
Witness (mail):
I like the term George's boss used in "Seinfeld": "differently advantaged."
2.7.2008 9:59am
Brooks Lyman (mail):
Peter Metcalfe -

Retarded refers only to a mental condition - and I suspect that the psychological profession narrows it even further than the layman - but not to the generally understood meanings of some of the other terms such as lame and crippled (despite my being called "lame-brain" on occasion) which generally refer to physical problems, not psychological. So, as a one-word solution, "retarded" does't make the grade.

What I find particularly annoying is when ignorant people jump on someone for using a word that they think sounds pejorative, such as "niggardly," and then to make it worse, the person who understands that what he was saying was nothing bad apologizes for his "sin."

And by the way, looking briefly back at the "Tar Baby" post, while I'm not an Uncle Remus scholar, this is the first I've heard of "tar baby" being used as a pejorative description of a black person, excuse me, I mean Negro, Oops, person of color, er...make that African-American (what's wrong with just plain old "American", anyway?).
2.7.2008 10:04am
Adam J:
Al Maviva - you can blame lawyers for that distinction, not the PC police.
2.7.2008 10:06am
Happyshooter:
First people who can't think right were idiots, then that became a bad word.

Then retarded, then that was a bad word.

Then mental handicapped, then that was a bad word.

Then mental disabled, soon to be a bad word.
2.7.2008 10:25am
cjwynes (mail):
The only PC word-choice that ever really bothered me was when somebody insisted that I refer to gypsies as "Roma". I'm at least somewhat aware of the history of those people who call now want to be called "Roma", but the point is that "gypsy" applies to alot of people in many different countries who are definitely NOT from that group. Similarly, some people suggest that eskimo is verboten, and that Inuit is preferable, even though not all people described by the term eskimo are actually Inuits.

I definitely agree with another poster that connotations are hard to argue with. I had a professor for european history in college who, in discussing the reformation, referred to certain elements of Catholic theology as "the cult of Mary and the Saints". Although "cult" might mean one thing as a technical term, try referring to it that way in front of a Catholic and see what happens.
2.7.2008 10:55am
Anonymouseducator (mail) (www):

I work in a PC environment and love to shock and annoy the powers-that-be by using the "totally unacceptable" terminology of two years ago and then defending myself with an official memorandum from days of yore that absolutely requires use of the currently unacceptable terminology.


Wow. Impressive. How many previously mandatory words have become off-limits in the past 2 years?
2.7.2008 11:47am
A.C.:
There isn't even consensus about single categories of disability/handicap, much less the overall term. Just look at deaf, Deaf, hard of hearing, hearing impaired, and related controversies.

"Disability" seems like a perfectly reasonable term for any of a wide range of functional limitations, but then so does "handicap."

I get the point of not saying "the handicapped," leaving out the "people" part, but I'm not sure that there's a valid distinction between "disabled people" and "people with disabilities." I mean, we all know how adjectives work in English, and we can all spot the noun even if it doesn't come first.
2.7.2008 12:33pm
Sigivald (mail):
I'm with rlb, if only in that if I'm ever permanently on a brace or crutches or in a wheelchair, I have pledged to refer to myself with the term "cripple".

As in "Outta my way, kid! Cripple comin' through!"
2.7.2008 12:38pm
Houston Lawyer:
How did we get through this many posts without the term "special" being thrown about? Now "special needs" is a recent term that covers a lot of good ground without insulting the intelligence of the audience. Then there is always the phrase "he has issues" which can cover whatever you need as well.
2.7.2008 12:41pm
DeezRightWingNutz:
Emo Phillips, while doing the standard interact with the audience schtick, asked a lady what she did for a living. "I'm a teacher," she relpied. "Oh, that's nice," said Emo, "What subject?" "Special Ed," came the response. "Oh, you teach retarded children?" asked Emo. "No, developmentally disabled," said the teacher. Without delay, Emo replied "They'll ruin any name you give 'em."

Isn't that true; although I'd argue that those that do the stigmatizing ruined the word, not the people with the handicap.

The stigma doesn't come from the word, it comes from the reality that word describes. While I don't think cripples/hanicappers/the diabled should be stigmatized, the problem isn't the word, it's that people aren't sensitve, or fear it, or whatever causes something to be stimatized.
2.7.2008 12:48pm
pete (mail) (www):
Then there is the Mark Zupan approach, author of "Gimp" and who was in the Murderball documentary from a few months back, who wrote:

"I hate being called handicapped. Fucking hate it. Call me a cripple or, if you want to be polite, call me disabled."

He goes on to talk about how handicapped in sports gives someone an advantage that he does not want to have to rely on.
2.7.2008 12:53pm
CEB:
Trying to apply logic or reason to political correctness is a fool's--er, a differently-mentally-abled person's--errand.
2.7.2008 12:56pm
CEB:
Oh, and since this blog is often the host of etymological discussions, does anyone know anything about the origin of the term "politically correct"? Was it always pejorative?
2.7.2008 12:58pm
Just a thought:
Prof. Volokh, I love these posts about language. Keep them up! I don't think you've considered the "Oriental" v. "Asian" dispute, which is a particular pet peeve of mine, so I hope you consider it in the future. Growing up in Canada, I didn't realize "Oriental" was un-p.c. until someone told me in college in the U.S. (I don't know whether my non-issue with "Oriental" was a "flaw" in my own personal education or due to general Canadian culture which saw it as a non-issue.) Since then, no one has been able to give me a reasonable explanation why "Oriental" is offensive.
2.7.2008 1:01pm
Happyshooter:
Now "special needs" is a recent term that covers a lot of good ground without insulting the intelligence of the audience.

In the mid-90s the military started using 'exceptional' to mean dependant kids who with mental or physical handicaps.

The term became one used just like 'tard' in the military schools by the kids fairly quickly.

There is no term that will not become an insult.
2.7.2008 1:06pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Elliot Reed: I tried to test your hypothesis about "differently abled," by googling it, and it looks like there are quite a few sites that use the word sincerely. I suspect it's much less common as "handicapped" or "disabled," but it seems that it still has a pretty substantial footprint.
2.7.2008 1:09pm
A.C.:
I think "Oriental" was a normal, uncontroversial word in the US as recently as the early 80s. The switch to "Asian" is new, and the reasoning I've heard is that it provides an absolute point of geographic reference rather than a relative one. "East" implies a European perspective. Which is an odd consideration in a North American discussion, because from here you get to China by going west.

The new problem is that "Asian" refers to eastern Asia in the US, but to southern Asia in England. And then there's the neverending problem of how to refer to people from western Asia...

As for "politically correct," I first heard it as a joking term that people on the left used about each other. People who got into intense debates about Marxism at parties would be told to "stop being so politically correct and dance." This was long before the right took up the term.
2.7.2008 1:24pm
TripAz (mail):
I suppose to keep from offending them, we'll have to start calling them 'Canadians'. /s
2.7.2008 1:31pm
ys:

Now "special needs" is a recent term that covers a lot of good ground without insulting the intelligence of the audience.

Not so recent, although age is relative. About 25 years ago I described my grade school kid as having special needs to his school teacher. Pretty quickly I realized that she understood it as something completely different (I was not well versed in PC/official terminology). Turned out he really needed a program for "gifted and talented". This latter term was fine back then, but I wonder if it's been discarted as non-PC in the opposite direction, as I have not heard it in quite a while.
2.7.2008 1:32pm
PersonFromPorlock:

In the mid-90s the military started using 'exceptional' to mean dependant kids who with mental or physical handicaps.

"Exceptional child" actually dates back to the Sixties (that I'm aware of) and originally meant any child who was yea many standard deviations above or below the mean. You can imagine how long that lasted.
2.7.2008 1:38pm
Fub:
Years ago a paraplegic friend began referring to everyone else as "TABs", for "Temporarily Able Bodied". That formulation has benefit of being undeniably true whether the recipient of the name chooses to believe it or not.
2.7.2008 1:54pm
notalawyer:
PersonFromPorlock and AnneS are right. Whatever term we use becomes offensive over time and we have to find a new one, which eventually will become offensive in turn. The language police only accelerate the process.

That said, I try to avoid giving offense whenever possible. When I lived in Richmond in the 1980s, I learned the old names for a couple of institutions, names I wouldn't want to go back to: The Crippled Children's Hospital and the Virginia Home for Incurables.
2.7.2008 1:58pm
SC Public Defender:
One that's allways confused me is the rejection of steward/stewardess by flight persons in favor of the more entymologically demeaning "attendant".
2.7.2008 1:59pm
ys:

One that's allways confused me is the rejection of steward/stewardess by flight persons in favor of the more entymologically demeaning "attendant".

My guess is that the people who engineered this are no linguists/etymologists but they can tell when a noun has gender (or at least an implied gender derived from another language, as the ending "ess" implies). And gendering an occupation became a no-no.
Of course, these views fluctuate, thus "actor" became a bigendral word pushing "actress" out without substituting it with "performing arts person". Pretty soon, "man" will come back in its original meaning as "human person" (just kidding).
2.7.2008 2:49pm
A.C.:
And when was the last time you heard anyone say "aviatrix"?

"Guy" is already edging towards gender neutrality, at least in the plural. Groups made up entirely of women are now "you guys."
2.7.2008 2:56pm
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
My undergrad minor was "Oriental Studies," meaning China and Japan. I don't know when "Oriental" became a bad word, but presumably _after_ I got my BA in '86. I think it's now "Asian Studies," but that's so unhelpful: Do you mean you study China? India? Iran? Turkey? Asia is pretty big.
2.7.2008 3:12pm
Houston Lawyer:
Don't forget that the actresses now want to be called actors. The only fun part about award shows these days is to see whether any presenter actually uses the phrase "the winner is" instead of "the award goes to".
2.7.2008 3:37pm
ys:

I don't know when "Oriental" became a bad word, but presumably _after_ I got my BA in '86.

I guess by 1986 the waves made by Edward Said's "Orientalism" had not yet reached all the appropriate departments. I would also guess that this book and its fellow travellers had a role in making "Orientalism" and "Orientals" bad words. Curiously, it's primarily about the Middle East, not the Far East.
2.7.2008 3:47pm
Toby:
Anyone who is around kids in middle and high school is already hearing "He's went all bipolar on us" and "she's so OCD" already.


And I beleive Maoists at all kinds of parties were early on referreing to "Politically Correct" views, leading the others to tell them to shut up and dance, as above.
2.7.2008 3:49pm
JBL:
If we are to refer to less intelligent or less agile people as "differently abled", it is completely sensible to refer to unusually intelligent or athletic people as "differently disabled".

I say we borrow a phrase from Conan and just call everyone what-does-not-kill-you-makes-you-strongered.
2.7.2008 4:11pm
Blue:
In my work I deal with ethnic/racial subgroups a lot. Professionally, I deal with this issue simply: I use the term of art specified in legislation or code. Sometimes people complain, but generally my explanation shuts them up.
2.7.2008 4:57pm
Syd (mail):
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
My undergrad minor was "Oriental Studies," meaning China and Japan. I don't know when "Oriental" became a bad word, but presumably _after_ I got my BA in '86. I think it's now "Asian Studies," but that's so unhelpful: Do you mean you study China? India? Iran? Turkey? Asia is pretty big.


I took a course in East Asian History in the 1970s. That seems like a pretty neutral term. Although we've always been at war with East Asia.
2.7.2008 5:46pm
Cynical Nonlawyer:
I live in Maryland, and until 1922, the state agency which is now the "Department of Health and Mental Hygiene" was called the "State Lunacy Commission."
2.7.2008 6:04pm
Sua Tremendita:
Call them what they are: cripples, invalids, enfeebled, etc. Language is meant to convey meaning, not to assuage hurt feelings.

-tremendo
2.7.2008 6:07pm
dweeb:
No matter what word you choose, the PC crowd will eventually want it replaced, because eventually the stigma of the state being described will attach. Being disabled will always be a non-optimum condition, until the day that people are lining up for the privilege of being paralyzed or blinded, and thus the visceral emotional reaction to the CONCEPT will never go away, no many how many times the word is replaced.
2.7.2008 8:04pm
Waldensian (mail):

Call them what they are: cripples, invalids, enfeebled, etc. Language is meant to convey meaning, not to assuage hurt feelings.

-tremendo

So I guess I can, without any reservation, call tremendo an ass?
2.7.2008 8:54pm
Eric Jablow (mail):
Bill Veeck Jr., in his [and Ed Linn's] book "Veeck, as in Wreck," wrote that he preferred the word 'crippled'. I forget the reasons he disliked the alternatives.
2.7.2008 8:57pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Long ago in Marine Corps boot camp the morning call for sick call muster was, "Gimme your sick, lame, and lazy, blind, crippled, and crazy!"
2.8.2008 12:18am
Ravikiran (mail):
Wasn't "physically challenged" touted to be politically correct and acceptable way ?
2.8.2008 9:28am
Happyshooter:
"Exceptional child" actually dates back to the Sixties (that I'm aware of) and originally meant any child who was yea many standard deviations above or below the mean.

It was funny filling out reports, since they were 'family members'--'dependants' was also a hate term at the time.

The report would be 'EFM-M' (Exceptional Family Member-Mental...or emotional...or physical...)
2.8.2008 12:49pm
Bandon:
This is an interesting discussion of an ongoing problem, with the absence of any perfect solution. I work with many people with disabilities, both mental and physical, and I am the parent of a son with mental retardation. Any term, however neutral sounding, may become stigmatized over time and require "replacement" in the language. I don't regard that as a big deal, as our language is constantly evolving.

In general, the term "disability" has replaced "handicap" over the last few years. My son is now often referred to as a person with "intellectual disabilities" instead of MR. I don't know if this term is better or not, but it does reflect an attempt to treat people with respect -- which is a good thing.

Although it is likely that the origin of handicap as "cap in hand" is not correct (as has already been noted in previous posts), I have heard several people with disabilities complain passionately about how insulting it is to them to be labeled as beggars by use of that term. Rather than arguing with them about the correct origins of the word, I prefer to use whatever term they feel most comfortable with. This can be tricky, though, since some people with physical disabilities still prefer to be called "crippled" while most others prefer the use of the term "physical disabilities." It is fairly universal, though, to find that people with disabilities prefer "people first" language (eg, preferring "child with Down Syndrome" to a "Down's child"). This emphasizes respect for their status as a person rather than emphasizing the disability.

I often remind people that almost everyone who lives long enough will develop some type of disability. It's just a fact of life that most of us will have to deal with at some time and in some way. So what do you or you loved ones want to be called?
2.10.2008 11:41pm