Crippled. Lame. Retarded. Infirm. Sickly. Handicapped. Disabled. Wounded Healer. Special. In many languages and in many eras there have been words and expressions used to describe people who differ in some way from the majority of their peers.
In certain eras, very little thought has been given to the implications of these labels, but there has been a growing academic and therapeutic emphasis on the language we use to describe disability since about the 1970s. Concern on the part of family members and advocates of people with disabilities (including the disabled people themselves) and on the part of society in general, has followed.
This is the first part of a discussion about the language and labels we use, and the changing trends that impact the words we are told we can or cannot use.
Crippled, lame, invalid, infirm
These words refer to people whose mobility is limited, or who are weak from a long sickness or injury. While they are not generally considered appropriate today, some of them were used in the recent past. You may remember the Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children, or you may have spent some time in an “infirmary” if you became ill while away at camp or boarding school.
Mute or dumb
When I was younger it was quite normal to refer to a person who could neither hear nor speak as a “deaf mute.” The word mute comes from Old French muet. It means “silent.” The word “dumb” carried the same meaning in Old English, but in German it also had a second meaning of “stupid’ or “confused.”
Both these words now find themselves rejected, perhaps because too many of us tend to confuse not being able to speak with not having anything intelligent to say – or worse, with not being quite human. Of course, there is a longstanding tradition of feeling superior to those who don’t speak one’s own language – including professional or cultural jargon. “Barbarians” was originally a term applied to foreigners. In the late 20th century a person was “lame” because they failed to keep up with the jargon of the time.
This word means “slow,” a pretty fair description of people whose intellectual development lags behind that of their peers. As of 1970, people had begun to use the word “retard” (accent on the first syllable) as an insult. It is now a major faux-pas to refer to someone as retarded.
Handicapped, disabled and Person First Language
Contrary to popular belief, this word is a shortening of “hand in cap,” a gambling game that involved odds. The expression “handy-cap” or “handicap” later came to be used in horse racing, when an umpire had a superior horse carry more weight in a race to level the playing field. “Handicapped” has never had anything to do with begging.
The word “disabled” literally means “incapacitated.” It suggests a complete lack of ability, rather than one or more specific challenges. I find the expression much more invalidating than “handicapped,” which it has replaced. Person First Language, in which we do not refer to a “disabled person” but a “person with a disability” does mitigate the generalization somewhat. Transposing the nouns allows the insertion of “a,” indicating one specific disability instead of a complete lack of ability.
Unfortunately, Person First Language (FPL) is also controversial. It tends to be awkward in many instances, and it is also rejected by many people who are blind, deaf or autistic because it can be seen as indicating shame and a failure to accept one’s disability. FPL can actually draw more attention to disabilities because of its awkwardness. In other instances the prescribed labels can be imprecise, for example I have epilepsy, but under PFL I could be referred to as a “person with a developmental disability” because the seizures I have are caused by a condition present since birth. This label applies equally to my autistic son, although he and I experience vastly different challenges in life and require completely different forms of assistance.
My personal feeling is that, because PFL was created intentionally and is not the result of an evolution of the English language, it will eventually give way to a newer trend. Hopefully the best aspects of its focus on the person, and on respect and good manners will stay with us.
“Guidelines for reporting and writing about people with disabilities.” Research and Training Center on Independent Living (University of Kansas)
Online Etymology Dictionary.