Cripple vs Handicap: It's All About the Word

There are many ways to refer to someone who has a disability. The two most common names that I’ve heard are “handicapped” and “crippled.” The word “handicapped” is supposed to be the most formal name for a disabled person, and the most respectful. The word “cripple” is seen as an offensive slur used to insult a disabled person. However, I find the word “handicapped” much more offensive, and would rather be called a cripple than being called handicapped.

During my last fall semester, I had taken the Exceptional Child class. This class focused on the various disabilities that children could be born with, or could develop later on in life. While studying my textbook, I came across their believed origin for the word “handicap.” The book stated that referred to children who were mentally disabled who would have to beg for money and collect it in a cap in their hands. When I first read that, I was surprised, because the word “handicapped” was always seen as the politically correct term. But this dark origin gave it a new disgusting meaning to me. This was a word used to label mentally disabled children negatively, and refers to a time where these children were so mishandled that they were left to beg for change to support their family. And yet, this is the word that people believe is the proper way to refer to disabled people today!

“Cripple,” on the other hand, has always just been a word to me. Most people understand where it comes from, and how it mostly is used to insult disabled people, but when they use it to me, they’re either joking or they understand that I know they are not insulting me. To me, there’s nothing hidden about the word “cripple.” I am very easy-going and do not take offense to just a word that’s been deemed offensive. And to be honest, if people are using it to convey offensive and negative opinions towards disabled folk, then it’s not the word they’re using that is wrong, but the it is the person him/herself that is a horrible and sorry excuse for a human being.

A word’s meaning and power can change over time. Context and intention are the most important things to me. But I would rather be told something straight to me with a non-offensive intention, rather than someone deliberately using a “politically correct” word with such a dark history that they don’t fully understand. So do not use the word “handicap.” No, please. You keep giving me the mental image of me as a background character in Les Misérables holding a dunce cap out.

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