The H Word: Breaking the Stigma, Embracing Reality

Disclaimer: The following opinions are my own and don’t reflect the disabled community as a whole.

Let’s talk about words. We use them everyday to express ourselves. Words express joy, surprise and sadness. There are some words that we use that some people find offensive. In the disabled community, there is some debate about what word people with disabilities want to be labeled. Here is where I think we’ve taken it too far at times.

Handicapped. This word has been a source of contention within the disabled community for a long time. In this age of political correctness, the word handicapped has somehow become an offensive term, perhaps implying that the person is somehow less of a person because of their physical appearance/abilities. So alternative words have been manufactured to replace it. My least favorite replacement? Handicapable. Blech! Even writing that word makes me twitch in the face a bit, like I’ve just eaten something extremely sour. Sidenote: while editing this entry, the word “handicapable” was actually flagged as a word not recognized by spellcheck….hmmm….

Should the above definition stick? And what can be done to change this definition where those of us in the disabled community can embrace it and be proud of how we were made? I think it helps to look into the origin of the word. According to, the word handicapped originated in the mid 17th century:

from the phrase hand in cap; originally a pastime in which one person claimed an article belonging to another and offered something in exchange, any difference in value being decided by an umpire. All three deposited forfeit money in a cap; the two opponents showed their agreement or disagreement with the valuation by bringing out their hands either full or empty. If both were the same, the umpire took the forfeit money; if not, it went to the person who accepted the valuation.”

Seems to have been a more positive definition way back when, before it was supposedly clouded with negativity. As time went on, I think the word became more polarizing as the disabled community was having an increasingly more difficult time earning a living, and enjoying life without discrimination. But I think I have a solution to turn this negative word into a positive. It’s to simply think like a child. Case in point: many years ago I was spending a week at my grandparents house. One day we went out to a movie and took my then 7 yr old cousin with us. We stopped in the bathroom to take a break, and I used a non handicapped stall-I’m able to transfer out of my chair when I need to move around just a bit. I transferred into the stall, leaving my chair outside the door…. Later that day my grandma told me what happened next. My little cousin, becoming restless, had climbed up into my wheelchair and was moving the wheels back and forth. Someone else came into the bathroom, saw her and went into the stall. My cousin, oozing pride, breathlessly announced to my grandma, “I think they thought I was handicapped!!…..”

There you go, ladies and gentlemen. Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom and insight. My little cousin in that moment was so proud to be labeled handicapped. In my work with children over the years I’ve also found this to be true. They are constantly questioning me about my chair or why I have braces on my legs. Or they pretend to be disabled in their playtime. They see it as a thing of pride and honor (and fun 😉 ).

And so I choose to be labeled as handicapped. A moniker that I’ll wear with pride the rest of my days.

I hope you found this helpful. Always remember you are never alone, and are worth more than any label you wear.


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