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Was using ‘handicapped’ insensitive?

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Posted: Friday, July 23, 2004 10:00 pm

Were we callous in using the term "handicapped parking?" Jon Withers of Lodi thinks so. Jon fired off a letter to the editor, published this week, chastising us for using the term in a story about a crackdown by Lodi police.

Handicap may still be OK in golf, Jon contends, but it is no longer acceptable in referring to someone who is physically impaired.

"Disabled" is the proper term now, he said.

Richard Hanner

Jon raises a fair point. His letter reflects how usage can evolve to reflect new or deepened sensitivities. Quite frankly, it also shows how usage may not evolve as quickly as some would prefer, because handicapped is a term that continues to be used despite the rancor of its critics.

In the '60s and even '70s, I can recall the word "invalid" used to describe people, mainly older, who suffered from a variety of impairments. I also recall the word "cripple" being used from time to time, though even in that era it was in disfavor.

Today those words are clearly off-limits.

First, they were replaced with handicapped. But with the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, disabled gained increasing popularity. Why the switch from handicapped to disability occurred is not entirely clear.

According to some references, leaders of the disability rights movement in the 1980s insisted handicapped was put into use by special-education authorities, instead of the movement itself.

The Associated Press Stylebook, considered the top reference for newspaper usage, suggests that journalists avoid the word handicap altogether. It says disabled is preferred. Yet it urges that even disabled be used sparingly to describe "a condition that interferes with an individual's ability to do something independently."

Advocates for the disabled suggest that the emphasis be on the individual and on a specific condition, not a generalized description. So "a person with cerebral palsy," is considered preferable to either a disabled or handicapped person.

"We should put the person first," said David Miller, chief executive officer of the Goodwill of the San Joaquin Valley, whom I consulted for this column. He said the word "challenged" is gaining more use, as in "he is physically challenged," for a person who has had polio.

In fact, among some advocates, "challenged" is now preferred over both handicapped and disabled. Other terms are also bring tested, as well, such as "handicapable" or even "inconvenienced."

Like it or not, handicapped is still in common use today. A Google search of "handicapped parking," for instance, brought 600,000 hits. A search of "disabled parking," found more than 1.2 million.

This week a friend dropped off a copy of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Scanning it, I noticed this headline: "Handicapped access on the buses."

The News-Sentinel story Jon referred to told of efforts by the Lodi police to enforce disabled parking restrictions. Our headline was "Crackdown in Lodi on handicapped parking." The text of the story, too, referred repeatedly to handicapped parking. (I edited the story myself and did not cull out the handicapped references.)

In fact, the notice of deficiency used by Lodi police includes different phrases, including:

"Parking stalls for disabled persons."

"Handicapped stall."

"Handicap accessibility."

(I wasn't able to connect with the police supervisor in charge of the crackdown this week to ask about the language of the notices.)

From my limited research, I gather the preferred term is now "accessible parking," though that strikes me as downright confusing. Aren't parking spaces, by their very nature, accessible?

Over the years, some terms thought to be offensive have pretty much vanished from the usage screen.

Why does handicapped stubbornly persist?

Surprisingly, dictionary definitions seem to support handicapped over disabled.

Frank Smart of Lodi, for one, prefers handicapped. He made his case in a letter to the editor in response to Jon's, which I am including here in edited form because of its relevance:

(Jon's letter) got me thinking as to why someone would get so upset about being referred to as handicapped … when we examine the meanings of the words handicapped and disabled, maybe political correctness has gotten this one wrong. Let's see, handicapped means someone has something that prevents full function in some way, but in all other ways is functional and useful. Not bad. However, if someone or something is disabled, they're not functional at all. If your car is disabled, you can't drive it. If your computer is disabled, no e-mail or Internet. So it seems to me the more compassionate term for a person who is blind, paralyzed, etc., would be handicapped. I would rather be partly functional than disabled. Just a thought from a member of the great unwashed mass.

As the tides of usage shift, we in the newsroom need to be sensitive but also pragmatic.

I can't see adopting "accessible parking," for instance, nor do I see much of a future for the gimmicky "handicapable."

And the logic of Frank Smart's argument regarding handicapped is clear.

On balance, though, for the sake of both consistency and sensitivity, it makes sense for us to follow the counsel of both Jon and the Associated Press and use disabled - at least for the near future.

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