Disabled words

John Brain

July 27, 1993|By John Brain

MY WIFE saw the Harrumph! coming. She knew the signs: red face, bulging eyes, tight lips, twitching nostrils -- my response to the latest desecration of our language.

"What is it now, dear?" she asked.

"It's the League for the Handicapped," I sputtered. "They've changed their name again. Now they're just 'The League,' subtitled 'Serving People with Physical Disabilities Inc.' Harrumph!"

"Can't they call themselves what they like?" she wondered. She knew how to twitch the cape to make the bull charge.

"Listen to this," I said:

" 'This change reflects an upward movement in the league's philosophy and mission. The word "handicapped" is viewed by many as a pejorative because it tends to focus on the impediments facing people with disabilities rather than on their ability to contribute to society.' "

In short, "handicapped" is out and "disabled" is in. Sensitivity strikes again -- political correctness wins. But our glorious language loses. Again.

In 1927 the league was launched as the Maryland League for Crippled Children; later the words "and adults" were added. But crippled, though a perfectly good dictionary word for those suffering from physical injuries or deformities, came to be viewed by many as pejorative. So the name was changed to "handicapped."

Now "handicapped" is considered a pejorative and "disabled" has been substituted. But some organizations are already telling us that "disabled" is also pejorative and that the correct term should be "differently abled."


The motives of those who lead this dance of the seven linguistic veils are impeccable. They want to change public attitudes toward people with physical disabilities, to 'Handicapped' is out and 'disabled' is in. Sensitivity strikes again -- political correctness wins.

wash away the stigma many people instinctively feel at the sight of wasted, deformed limbs, of crutches, wheelchairs, prostheses and all the sad impedimenta of dependence. They want us to know that the disabled can function.

But simply exchanging one word for another just doesn't hack it. Soon the new word takes on the same stigma the old one had and yet another euphemism must be found.

In fact, there's nothing inherently offensive about the words "crippled," "handicapped" or "disabled," and very few people ever use them with malice.

"Handicapped" actually is a much more appropriate word than "disabled," which means literally "rendered unable," like a battleship dead in the water.

"Handicapped," by contrast, is a racing term for a horse that carries an additional burden but can still go on to win. So in this case the right word has been thrown out and the wrong word substituted. Crazy? Sure, but in dealing with emotional issues the irrational often triumphs.

Changing words is an attempt at a quick fix, the Newspeak Solution. Even so, if it ended there it would be just another false start. But it doesn't end there. It leaves us with an attic filled with discarded, dishonored good words that have been rendered unusable by well-wishers who want to improve the world but in fact only lay waste to the language.

So, to those who have trashed "handicapped" and substituted "disabled," I ask: Whom are you kidding? "Handicapped" is a good, useful, time-honored word blessed by Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary and admirably suited to describing those who have physical or mental disabilities that in many cases can be overcome.

The impulse to coax the world to cease stigmatizing handicapped people is admirable. But two wrongs don't make a right -- and words have rights, too. We need to change minds, not words.

John Brain writes from Baltimore.

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