Is It Correct To Call Someone Handicapped?


There has been a lot of media coverage about the rights of  disabled people. This thankfully sheds some light on a subject otherwise overlooked by mainstream media. However, it also raises issues such as the words that we should use when we talk about disabled people without being politically incorrect or downright offensive. Similarly, we should be aware of how to address and to talk to a disabled person.

When it comes to political correctness, many disabled persons proclaim that they do not really care how they are referred to by other people. In private, however they express anger and feel patronized if someone calls them handicapped or brave. The disabled are painfully  aware that merely putting them on a pedestal does not shift societal attitudes or solve the unemployment situation for them.

The BBC's disability website, ‘Ouch!’ is a medium through which people express their apprehension about the correct usage of language when talking to the disabled or discussing their problems. Understandably, these people are afraid of getting it wrong and being politically incorrect.

Some time back 'Ouch!' conducted a poll to find out the words that the disabled found offensive and avoidable. The word ‘retard’ topped the list as the most offensive followed by ‘spastic’. It was interesting to note that disabled people found the word 'special' as the fifth most offensive word. The original intent behind the use of the word special was to be positive about disability as is evident from phrases such as special service, special school and special needs.

It appears that the disabled do not like being discriminated against by being called as 'special' just like women feel that they are being subject to a gender bias if they are referred to as ‘lady’.

The use of words like 'handicapped' and 'invalid' in one way or the other discriminates against such people. Some believe that the phrase 'people with disabilities' is a better manner of addressing them as it implies that they are people first. However, when one speaks to  experts on disability studies or rights campaigner, their opinion is that such a phrase doesn’t comply with norms of a concept called 'the social model of disability'.

These experts say that the correct term would be 'disabled people'. Clearly, there is some confusion on the language that should be used in this field.

The word disabled and disability may be unwittingly understood to refer to how society treats such people and not the impairments per se, which is a medical subject. The word disabled is usually associated with Braille menus in restaurants, wheelchairs, special facilities at airports, reserved seats in buses. It also includes attitudes that compel unemployment and non-inclusion towards the disabled.

The disability movement is linguistically attempting to separate the personal medical situation from the responsibility of society towards all disabled people. It is about identifying those who believe in civil rights for the disabled as opposed to people who mistakenly believe that their poor quality of life is on account of a handicap and that somehow they are less than perfect.