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Jack Smith

This Columnist Has Played in Pain, Too

February 04, 1988|Jack Smith

Among the more civil facts of life in America today is the common will to rid our language of racist and sexist epithets. It is amazing how quickly old forms vanish when they become socially unacceptable.

I am reminded by a colleague, Dianne B. Piastro, whose column on "Living With Disability" has appeared in the Long Beach Press-Telegram and other Southern California newspapers, that the disabled are still hurt by thoughtlessly cruel and inaccurate language.

Piastro has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. She is not, she insists, "a victim" of multiple sclerosis, nor "afflicted" by multiple sclerosis; nor is she "confined" to a wheelchair or "wheelchair-bound." A wheelchair, she points out, is a tool one uses for mobility; it is not a cage or a trap; it does not bind.

She writes to protest a paragraph I wrote about using a wheelchair to board a plane in Malaga, Spain, and again in Madrid, and using another to deplane at Los Angeles, where I was speedily wheeled through customs.

I wrote: "If anyone happened to see me being pushed through International Airport in a wheelchair, I want to explain. I am not an invalid. I do not claim the status of handicapped. I can walk."

Piastro inferred that I was "ashamed of being whisked around" in a wheelchair. "Even though your disability was temporary," she said, "due to illness and exhaustion, your consternation about the wheelchair was classic."

I assure her that my embarrassment arose not from a fear that others would think me disabled, but that they would know I was not. I felt as if I were using the wheelchairs and their attendants on fraudulent pretenses, like the able-bodied who park their cars in handicapped spaces.

She also protests my use of the word in valid, which, she points out, has the same origin as in val id, meaning null, void, having no force; and she accuses me of subconsciously thinking it synonymous with disabled. Guilty.

But I see no merit in quibbling with Piastro on the language of disability; she is an expert by experience and concern, and her level-headed grasp of the subject is commendable, though she still honors the myth that handicap is derived from beggars holding out their caps for money. In fact it is derived from an ancient card game, in which one held one's hand in one's cap.

But I applaud her doughty stand against misguided reformers who favor the use of such embarrassing terms as differently abled and physically challenged. She writes: "Euphemisms like differently abled, physically challenged and handi-capable are misleading attempts to avoid reality, and I suspect that the people who coin those phrases have an unconscious prejudice toward, or fear of disability due to the stigma attached to it. Thus they deny reality instead of dealing with it positively . . . How much more informative to say I am disabled, you are nondisabled; I have a physical disability, you do not . . . ."

Piastro points out that a disability may or may not be a handicap. People using wheelchairs are handicapped by stairs, but not by elevators. "Appropriate equipment and an accommodating, accessible environment can reduce or eliminate the handicapping effect of a disability."

She concedes that disabled , like handicap , has a negative history, but handicapped is the term most often used in government and law, and disabled is common and acceptable. But people with disabilities is better, in her mind, because "it puts the person first, and does not lump individuals into a dehumanized category as the term disabled does." She notes, however, that the word disability has never meant a total lack of abilities.

I have written on this subject before, and concluded, as I remember, that the word handicapped , despite its foes, is the best word we have for someone who is to some degree physically impaired. In the first place, it implies the ability to excel despite one's disabilities, which the word disability itself does not do.

It's all semantics. In football, a player may play with injuries, which are regarded merely as handicaps. But a disabled player can not play. He doesn't even suit up. He is replaced. On the other hand, a few years ago Jack Youngblood played in a Super Bowl game for the Rams with a broken leg.

That's what I call overcoming a handicap.

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