Sunday, March 24, 2013

Handicapped vs. Disabled vs. Impairment

I have been thinking a lot these last few days about the word ‘handicapped’, ever since reading my buddy Cathy’s article on, “Language: From Handicapped to Disabled and Beyond”. In it she wrote about how using the ‘h’ word is unacceptable because of the negative and offensive connotation. The stigma stems from the original phrase ‘hand in cap’, involving the image of a beggar, injured from war and deemed helpless.

Cathy also described how MSers are “…generous, intelligent and hardworking people who deserve equal access, equal treatment and equal acceptance.” Cheers to that! Whoop, whoop! Cue in chants, “What do we want? Equal rights! When do we want it? Now!”

Let's disable the 'h' word
from our vocabulary

Photo: (c) 2012 C Germans
Yet, reading her article caused me to niggle a bit (well, honestly, it caused me to niggle a lot, I never seem to worry in small doses). I niggled that I might have used the ‘h’ word myself, right here on this blog. I asked myself, within moments of reading Cathy’s article, “Have I ever used the ‘h’ word? I certainly hope not. Yet, if I have used it, are people mad at me? Have I offended someone? Anyone?” It was impossible to remember, so I searched The Lesion Journals’ space for the word ‘handicapped’ and, sadly, discovered that I have used this word in my post about getting the disabled persons parking placard. Crap. My stomach hurt, full of regret. My cheeks flushed with shame.

I quietly niggled, to myself, “It must be clear in the article that my only objective was to describe the struggles of coming to terms with a disability. Right? I certainly had no intention of causing any harm. I just wanted to talk about my decision to get the blue placard and share my feelings of doubt, fear and guilt. What on earth was I thinking, using the ‘h’ word? This is no bueno. After all, I’ve lived with disability all of my life.”

I was born with a hearing impairment, ‘nerve damage’ they cited, in both ears. We (my parents, loved ones, teachers and the audiologist) always used the words ‘hearing impairment’, ‘hearing loss’ or ‘hard of hearing’. I never heard the other ‘h’ word uttered in reference to my hearing. Well, maybe it was said but I certainly didn’t hear it! Yuck, yuck, chuckle, chuckle. Get it? Seriously though. What gives? Why did it seem okay for me to use the ‘h’ word following my MS diagnosis?

Is it cultural? Ignorance? For a long, long time it seems that it has been socially acceptable to use the ‘h’ word in reference to someone who lives with disability or impairment or injury or loss or weakening or deficiency or incapacity or ill health or restriction or hindrance*. I’ve heard the ‘h’ word, you’ve heard it, we’ve all heard it. And, certainly, no harm was or is intended. Most people, by nature, are good people. Yet, cars have driven past the blue painted parking spots, those spots close to the front entrance of a building, and people have said, “Don’t park in the handicapped spot.” So, it comes down to education right? And, exactly how does one do this? Or, are we as human beings overreacting about the word and becoming too sensitive? What is the true action here?

For me, my first action is to forgive myself. I totally see the harm in using the ‘h’ word and will go about things differently. This leads me to my second action: spread the good word about disabling the ‘h’ word from our vocabulary and begin finding new, respectable ways to communicate with one another. What do we want? Just a little respect and kindness. When do we want it? Well, now.

How about you? What has been your experience in hearing or using the ‘h’ word? What do you feel about it? I’d love to hear from you.

Hope you’re well.


*Source: my computer’s ‘Reference Tools’ when I look up the words impairment and disability in the thesaurus. I tried looking up “handicapped” but nothing showed up. Seems like my computer has caught on, knowing not to use the ‘h’ word. So smart.


  1. Thanks for writing this marvelous piece, Christie. I am so glad you found my post interesting and you expanded on it with yours. Now that's friendship! Wonderful, wonderful, my friend. You are helping so many with your superb writing and understanding of MS and of the human heart.


    1. Hey Cathy. You are so sweet. I really appreciated your post and wanted to talk about it. Thanks for writing it and teaching so much! You rock, friend!


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