Jul. 7th, 2017

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A colleague recently wondered about why we can't recapture the use of the word "handicap", which prompted a long response worth repeating here, revised so it works better as a standalone post:

I've worked as an editor for nearly 30 years now, and have had occasional opportunities over the years to discuss this issue with "ability" advocates. From these discussions, I've taken away two important realizations:

First, and most important, most of these people are in no way disabled. They are eminently able to do a great many things, including some I'm incapable of doing without a great deal of training and practice. As a result, many deeply resent being referred to as disabled, which literally means "unable to do something".

Second, many, but by no means all, prefer the term handicapped. This means that, whatever has gone "wrong" with their body, it only makes it more difficult for them to achieve certain things -- the original meaning of a handicap. But I have also met many people who consider "handicapped" to be a hugely pejorative term, for good historical reasons, and these people much prefer disabled. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing which camp a given person falls into until you ask them. Often, there's no good way to do this without being offensive, and all you can do is make your best effort not to offend.

Bottom line for me: I used "handicapped" whenever it's really necessary to describe the problems that a person faces rather than the person. I avoid both terms when the handicap isn't relevant to the subject of discussion. And I accept that despite my best intentions, some people will yell at me for my choices, no matter how well reasoned. I can live with that.

On a side note, the problem originates with the overuse of any word in a pejorative sense, and there are many similar examples. For example, Oriental used to be a perfectly good word to contrast with Occidental, but it has been so often misused as a racial slur that you can only safely use Oriental nowadays to quote someone who used the word in a historical context; instead, you have to use Asian. Say any word with enough venom, and it becomes an insult; say it often enough as an insult, and that usage will begin to stick, overriding the original meaning. In this way, the knuckle-draggers rob us of the ability to use a perfectly good and useful word, while also strewing our road to communication with a range of verbal landmines we may not even know enough to avoid.

I imagine the next area where we'll see this linguistic dilemma arising will be in the modern debates over gender. There's a whole raft of new terminology that has evolved to communicate this complex issue. For example, we can now use the term cis-gendered to describe people whose sense of gender agrees with the gender they superficially appear to be; I am cis-gendered because I have a male sense of identity, and also have a body that includes male genitalia. In contrast, we can use the term trans-gendered to describe people who feel a strong mismatch between their sense of gender identity and the identity that would be assigned to them by most people based on their physical body. I'm not aware of whether there's terminology for people who feel caught somewhere in the middle of this binary possibility, though we do have the term intersex for people who fall between the two physical extremes that are distinctly male and distinctly female.

As in the case of the handicapped/disabled binary, you never know ab initio how someone wants to be referred to: based on their anatomy, based on their gender, or based on some other principle. Again, all you can do is act with good intentions, aware of the possibility of offending, and be prepared to adapt your responses to avoid giving offence again in the future.

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