Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Tell that to an adult with a disability, and they’ll tell you words do hurt
Some words were once considered correct to use, but now are not. There are also words many people now find offensive, but continue to be use.
The word most people think about lately is the “R word.” The community of people with intellectual disabilities has been quite successful in letting people know that calling people retarded is not acceptable. But it doesn’t mean that usage of it has stopped. Most people who use it now don’t realize that it really does hurt.
Handicap is another word that is equally hurtful to many people and is still in broad use. There are multiple definitions of handicapped, including some urban legends
Damon Rose of Ouch says handicapped “evokes thoughts of being held back, not in the race, not as good, weighed down by something so awful we ought not to speak of it.”
According to many seemingly accurate accounts, handicap came from ‘cap in hand,’ referring to people who are blind or physically disabled practicing their lawful right to beg during King Henry VII of England’s reign. There is no actual evidence to support this claim.
The first known usage of the word was a game of chance called ‘hand in cap.’ Two people bartered the vale of an item by placing the valued amount or item of equal value in a cap. A third person established the actual value and an agreement would be made to equalize or forfeit the trade. This game was known as early as the 1653.
One hundred years later, the word evolved to describe an adjustment of a score according to a player’s ability in a game or sport. Stronger players were ‘handicapped’ being penalized, or weakened, to be more on par with their weaker competition.
It took 125 more years before the word became in common use to describe things of unequal value outside the sports world.
The first use of handicapped was by a man using it anonymously to describe himself in an Atlantic Monthly article in 1911 titled “The Handicapped – By One of Them.”
The author of the article wrote, “Whether or not such an experience is typical of handicapped children, there is tragedy there for those situated as I was.”
In 1915, the word handicapped was used by Lillian Wald to describe disabled children in the book The Handicapped Child.
Wald wrote, “Society must state indefinite terms its right to be protected from the hopelessly defective and the moral pervert, wherever found. This constitutes the real problem of the abnormal. At the adolescent period, those unfit for parenthood should be guarded – girls and boys– and society should be vested with authority and power to accomplish segregation, the conditions of which should attract and not repel.”
The word was adopted widely as a sound basis for eugenics.
Handicap did not yet describe adults. It took nearly 50 years for that to happen. It was not in commonplace usage until the 1950s.
As you can see, language changes through time. We no longer speak English as Shakespeare did.
I ask that you do honor the choices adult people with disabilities make to name themselves. Parents, please take cue from adults with disabilities and learn how to support your children, so they can to identify themselves with pride.
This article was written by Susan Fitzmaurice who likes to identify herself as disabled and is the parent of Teddy Fitzmaurice, a young man with Down syndrome, who says he is a person with a disability.