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Jack Smith

Is the language itself disabled in that it can't fairly define the handicapped?

April 09, 1985|JACK SMITH

In suggesting the other day that handicapped was perhaps the kindest and best word for describing those persons who are disabled in one way or another, I did not expect to be settling the question for all time.

I had been asked for my thoughts, you may remember, by Jane Small-Sanford, program chairman for the recent convention of the California Assn. of the Physically Handicapped, who argued that such words as invalid , cripple , confined , stricken , victim , abnormal , deformed and even handicapped itself were not quite right.

I have heard from several handicapped persons (I will call them that for lack of a better term), and from several persons who work with handicapped persons; most of them concede that handicapped is not a bad word, but wish the language could be more precise without being cruel.

Martha Purviance poignantly examines exceptional , as used to describe a mentally disabled child, which I objected to as intruding on the word's standard meaning.

"My nephew has cerebral palsy and brain damage to some degree, so that in our family we have some personal knowledge of those who are often called exceptional. . . . My nephew is exceptional in that he goes about his day, holding down a job, taking two buses each way to get there, supports himself, shares an apartment with another young man who is in similar circumstances, is responsible, helpful to others, all this when there is hardly a day goes by that he does not have a small seizure. . . . He has come to more than once to find the paramedics standing over him; he has broken bones, gone through a plate glass window, just an endless stream of accidents; and yet he is never discouraged, but just plugs along. . . ."

All right, this young man is exceptional; but is he not exceptional among those young people generally called exceptional, just on the basis of their disabilities?

Purviance answers the question herself: "But I feel the word exceptional is really not the right one. . . . Perhaps by calling brain-damaged people exceptional , the powers that be think they are making it appear better than it is. It isn't better; in many cases these people are devastating to see. . . ."

Writes Alice Crowell, director of the Spastic Children's League of Pasadena: "How confusing the whole picture becomes when we are not allowed to discuss certain disabled persons' problems in language we can all understand.

"Here at the Cerebral Palsy Center we deal with children every day who have 'handicaps.' Why call them anything else? A handicap is something that must be overcome, and that's exactly what we are all working for here--overcoming a problem with the best solution possible!"

"I am deaf," writes Camille Jones. "No, I am not hearing-impaired. . . . Why are these handicapped or disabled people trying to avoid descriptive terminology? If you have a handicap, say so! The terminology needs to be clear and descriptive. . . . I frequently find it necessary to tell others that I am deaf (not hearing-impaired). It's the mark of acceptance both ways, remember?"

" 'I'm a right-hand amputee,' I always say to people," writes retired Army Capt. James M. Perry. "It eliminates any further need for the person to question exactly what puts you in the category of the handicapped. So, what in the hell is wrong with the word handicapped ? I am handicapped with only one hand. I find it impossible to do some things that traditionally require two good hands--drive a nail, for instance. . . ."

Dianne Piastro, director of Special Connections, a statewide dating and friendship network for people who are dealing with physical disabilities, says she is acutely aware of the struggle to "unhandicap" the language.

"Call it what it is," she says, "but include the person first, with dignity. We are beginning to see this more and more in the media.

"Perhaps," she concludes, " handicapped is the best all-purpose word. However, I think I prefer disabled. After all, isn't life more than just winning or losing the horse race?"

"At the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, where I am a volunteer," writes Scott Giantvalley, "the term physically challenged is the one of preference, and it has been for at least a year now, and probably more. . . ."

"Instead of negative verbal words such as disabled , invalid , deformed , abnormal and your choice, handicapped , (too negative), I use the term physically challenged to describe my condition (amputee)," writes Bruce Parks of Newport Beach.

I should have mentioned that Small-Sanford, in her inquiry, dismissed physically challenged , with this thought: "There is nothing particularly challenging about a disability. It is there; you adjust to it and move on."

John Hartley of South Laguna, Irma Frazier of Santa Ana and Nicolas C. Quackenbos of Claremont all sent me the following clipping from the National Review:

"In a valiant effort to find a kinder term than handicapped , the Democratic National Committee has coined differently abled . The committee itself shows signs of being differently abled in the use of English."

You might dismiss that as a piece of committee gobbledygook that would never find its way into the language, but no--I have a letter from the Women's Center, UC Santa Barbara, from Margareth Annschild, director, as follows:

"Regarding words and your discussion of handicapped. I offer the following: differently able. Please see attached copy of our Calendar for context of its use."

The calendar has two lines at the bottom, noting that "The Women's Center is wheelchair accessible," and "We welcome the differently able."

What does that make the rest of us? In differently able?

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