It's 'handicapped,' despite the PC police

April 06, 1994|By Leslie F. Miller

MAYBE you saw the bus billboards for the Epilepsy Association of Maryland: "It's what I have, it's not what I am." This, of course, refers to the practice of identifying someone by an illness or disorder, as in "Bill's an epileptic."

Granted, if I had one of the many illnesses that fit this "ic" category, I doubt that I'd want to be defined by the term. In fact, I'd never introduce myself, "Hi, I'm Leslie. I'm a hypoglycemic." I might even forsake the economy of language to add "person with" to the name of my illness. But since it's something I have been afflicted with, I might just say I have hypoglycemia, rather than make my personhood an issue. It should be taken for granted that I am a person; I look like one and can reason.

However, as an able-bodied person (I'm supposed to say "non-disabled," as though I'm not a member of that elite club), I must take exception with most of the terms the PC police have substituted for specific medical conditions, "disabled" being the most repugnant.

While lecturing my English class, I used the word "handicapped." A hand went up. "It's 'disabled,'" the student said. I repeated my original statement, and up went that hand again. "It's 'disabled.' You're not supposed to say 'handicapped.' I hate that word." I asked her why, and she responded, "The government says. . ."

"Why do you hate it?" I asked.

"The government says . . .," she repeated, and then she said, "Disabled people hate that word."

My student couldn't tell me why. But the following week, she brought me a government-issued page titled "Language Says It All," outlining preferred terms for persons with disabilities. It began with a paragraph explaining that "handicapped reminds [the handicapped] of its beggar origins, when disabled people stood with 'cap in hand' at the city gates. Labels are killers of the spirit."

What about the disabled label? I was fuming. My face reddened; my heart raced. Then I consulted a dictionary, where I knew I'd find the answer that would prove to my class why politically correct language is often incorrect.

I explained to the students that the word derived from a game in which players drew lots from a cap ("hand i' cap") and that in golf and other games it's an advantage to have a handicap. If we look at the handicapped as people so perfect that they're given a disadvantage to make them equal with everyone else, why would anyone want to be known as disabled? Talk about a word that kills the spirit!

Furthermore, I can see how having diabetes or hypoglycemia might be a handicap, but a disability? What is there that a person with epilepsy can't do?

The words "deaf" and "blind" are also politically incorrect. People are "hearing impaired" and "visually impaired" -- the same terms we use to describe people who wear hearing aids or glasses. How can we propose to help people who can't hear or see when we lump them together with those who can? Can any euphemism change the fact that Stevie Wonder is blind and Beethoven was deaf?

No aspect of politically correct language is more sensitive than race. It's not enough, I agree, when striving for specificity, to be a member of the human race; we must be African-American, Asian-American, or European-American. But that's still not specific enough.

With which part of the huge African continent should blacks identify? Arthur Schlesinger, in his book "The Disuniting of America," quotes black columnist William Raspberry of the Washington Post: "While some Africans were establishing a university at Timbuktu, others were engaged in slavery or tribal warfare or cannibalism. Some Africans were monotheists, while others were savages."

Mr. Schlesinger paraphrases Mr. Raspberry's words: "Anyone who knows anything about Africa . . . knows that there is no single 'African' culture from which black Americans are descended." Likewise, there is no one Asian or European culture.

My classes at the University of Baltimore have the same number of black students as white. And those are the terms I use when we discuss issues of race related to the Schlesinger book, which is required reading for the course. It's not out of disrespect; on the contrary, it's out of respect, and no one has complained. Washington Post/ABC polls in 1990 showed that 66 percent of black Americans preferred to be called just that.

Even television's liberal "Murphy Brown" is tired of the pandering to PC language. In a recent episode, a town meeting had people objecting to the use of "girls" when referring to "women." Others objected to "tall," opting for "vertically enhanced," and others rejected "unemployed" for "temporarily dislocated."

Language must evolve because we are constantly changing and because we have the need to name things that have remained nameless (like snards, those big, greasy, snowballs that form under our cars). But language shouldn't evolve because of ignorance. As a teacher, I must be allowed to speak without a script. And if one of my students is offended by the term "handicapped," that's just a handicap she'll have to overcome. My other students are too busy working on solutions that will unite, rather than divide, us.

Leslie F. Miller writes from Baltimore.

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