Dispelling Myths About People with Disabilities: A Community Blog

Theo Braddy examines myths, stereotypes and assumptions about people with disabilities.

The Handicapping Condition

Written by Theo Braddy, Community Blogger | Sep 18, 2013 11:29 AM

There are many negative words when it comes to defining the word disabled or describing people with disabilities. These are just a few: crippled, helpless, useless, maimed, wounded, wheelchair bound, lame, mangled, mutilated, weakened, sick, invalid; the list goes on. Go ahead and look it up for yourself! However, one of my favorites is “handicapped”, which brings me to my real life story:

The Handicapping Condition

It was February of 1989. I had just been hired to be the Executive Director of the first Center for Independent Living in Central PA. I believed I was made for this position. I wanted to change the world, starting with Central PA. My goal was simple - I wanted the community to see people with disabilities as contributing members of society, people of worth and value and people who should not be dealing with discrimination.

I remember writing an article based on the use of the word, “handicapped”.  I figured I had to start with changing this outdated term because if society viewed us as handicapped, we would be seen as handicapped.  I called this article The Handicapping Condition and submitted it to the Patriot News. 

To my surprise, The Patriot News published it. In this article I described society as the one with ‘the handicapping condition,’ not people with disabilities.  This ‘handicapping condition’ that society had included a negative attitude toward people with disabilities, resulting in physical and attitudinal barriers that prevented us from full participation in all walks of life. I also pointed out if we could remove this handicapping condition that society processed, people with disabilities would no longer be handicapped.

But now that I am older and a tad bit wiser, there is another reason why this word “handicapped” needs to be addressed.

With some quick research, you will find there are a few views on the origin of the word “handicapped” and also a few reasons why the majority of people with disabilities do not appreciate being referred to as “handicapped”. “Handicapped” is a negative word for people with disabilities. It is attached to a long negative archaic history of pity and treating people with disabilities as beggars on the street, “cap in hand” asking for money.  Many people with disabilities, including myself, believe the word, “handicapped” needs to be eliminated,  just like the n-word and the r-word.

When I started on my journey 24 years ago as Executive Director of my agency, and then when I wrote the article, I hoped the word “handicapped” would be re-defined and no longer be used to refer to persons with disabilities. I was wrong!  It is still used and I am still trying to remind society to view people with disabilities as valuable contributing members of society, instead of someone who is to be pitied and devalued. 

Myth #3:  The word “handicapped” is the most appropriate term for referring to people with disabilities. 

Reality: It is an outdated term that is associated with beggars on the street asking for money.  The more appropriate terminology to use is People First Language; simply put the person before the condition or disability. For example, instead of saying “a blind person”, say “a person who is blind”. We are people first, not a condition or a disease.

The words we use in society really do matter. Words can speak positive things about a group of people or they can speak negative things about a group of people. If we, as a society, decide to use more positive terminology, we can be a more inclusive community.


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  • Ruth E DeCosta img 2013-09-22 17:00

    But sometimes one becomes a disease and is no longer a person. That is me. Isolation although I'm not contagious. I have lost everything including myself. I am no longer the person I was. I liked me. Being a mother or friend takes energy and that's gone. I have fought so many battles with insurance companies and Medicare and they never tell you what they want. Fax 101 pages and left out a bill from 2006 and lost the judgment. I'm tired and alone so therefore, I am just a disease.

    • Theo Braddy img 2013-09-23 12:21

      I know this feeling, but somehow you must continue to shout you are a person with value and worth and not just a diagnosis or disease. I tell my students often, when you believe you are in the right, plant your foot firmly and stand!

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