Handicap: a label that hurt

The word “handicap” really offended me as a child. I remember the first time the word hurt me. I was in fourth grade, on the playground with my friends. A fifth-grade bully put his arms in his shirt and said, “Jessica, look at me! I’m just like you. I’m handicapped!” I handled this interaction the same way I handled most bullies–I ignored him. But deep down, it really upset me.

I remember other instances over the years when people would say, “She can’t do that. She’s handicapped.” Even before the fourth grade, I understood the word “handicap” and didn’t want to be associated with it. And I couldn’t help but feel insulted when the mother of a childhood friend suggested we park in a handicapped space, just because I was in the car.

Part of my rejection of the word is because I didn’t want to be seen as less able than those around me. The word itself also evoked a lot of negative stereotypes, at least in America.

Thankfully, I also grew up during the shift in American culture. The word “handicap” became passé, and the word “disability” came into favor. However, neither word fit ME, and I still felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want to self-identify as either handicapped or disabled.

Born without arms, I have what most people would consider to be a disability. But that statement doesn’t tell you anything about my personality or my capabilities. It doesn’t tell you that I can be stubborn. It doesn’t tell you that I can also be shy. I still don’t like to use the words “handicap” or “disabled,” but I have moved past seeing them as put downs. I see the value of using people first language, but I’m not offended when someone else does not.

Words have power, but sometimes they don’t evoke their intended meaning. Handicap International has done so many wonderful things over the past 35 years. It has grown beyond helping only people with disabilities, too. And that's why they're changing the name. 

The new name of Handicap International (it's a secret until Wed., Jan. 24!) better represents the work this amazing organization does. Many people like you and me have supported HI’s efforts. A few have needed some extra convincing because of the name. Now, thankfully, we can rally more of our friends to help make the world a more inclusive place. And, just as importantly, we don’t need more defensive conversations around political correctness–at least about this great organization.

Jessica Cox