Alert the Politically Correct Police: Handicapped vs Disabled

I’m working with my Hiring Geeks That Fit book get-it-to-print designer, Heidi. She has made the book look wonderful in print, turned the front cover into a spine and back cover, and advised me on many things. The book is at the indexer right now, and she is doing one final proof before we go to print. After all, you can never have too many edits.

One of the things I say in the book is to “not discriminate against the physically handicapped because of their disability.” Well, those words are not politically correct. I’m supposed to call physically handicapped people “disabled.”

I call myself handicapped. I am. I am not disabled. I work full time. I produce more output in terms of consulting, books, articles, than many other non-disabled/non-handicapped people. That’s because I have a system. It has nothing to do with my handicap.

I resent having to call myself disabled. Disabled is when you go on disability and can’t work. I have a handicap that affects how I walk (dizziness) and how I hear (can’t in my right ear). Okay, maybe I have two handicaps.

I am not disabled, except if you ask the politically correct word police. I have a handicapped placard for my car. I park in a handicapped spot. I don’t park in a disabled spot.

I’ll change the wording in the book, because I don’t want to offend the politically correct word police. But I won’t call myself disabled. I’m not. I’m handicapped.

Until my vertigo prevents me from working, I’m just handicapped. I’m not disabled. So there.

Let the flame wars begin.

34 thoughts on “Alert the Politically Correct Police: Handicapped vs Disabled”

    1. Jurgen, no they are not semantically handicapped. They might be semantically disabled. This is all part of the US’s approach to making people feel good about themselves. I think it’s nuts.

      While I don’t believe you should make people feel bad about themselves, you should use language to be unambiguous. This use of “disabled” obfuscates things. It’s stupid.

  1. Sherry Heinze

    Johanna, some of us do not do politically correct well very well in any context. If the point is to make people feel good about themselves, only the word police would think you should not be able to call YOURSELF whatever YOU are comfortable with. That would be congruent.

    1. Yves, we went with “physically handicapped” and left it at that. According to many of the sites I looked at, the politically correct word is “disabled,” which truly offended me.

  2. I’m unclear which particular PC police have a problem with “handicapped” but it seems a much more accurate and inoffensive word than “disabled”, in that it is statement of fact rather than a judgement of ability.

    1. David, you have hit the nail on the head. I had this feeling that I could not articulate, but disabled is not what I am. I am handicapped. And, there are some things I cannot do. But, they have nothing to do with work, which is what I was attempting to say in the book.

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  4. I’m not going to disagree with how you choose to define yourself, because that’s definitely your choice. My only question with this is doesn’t it imply that the only important ability you have is your ability to work? To me this seems a bit dehumanizing. Maybe I’m not reading it right though

    1. Hi Lillian, Maybe I’m not being clear.

      I am handicapped. Absolutely. I am not disabled.

      I agree with you, that I am not defined only by my ability to work. I am more than that. However, in a hiring context, when we are discussing the ability to work, I do think it’s okay to discuss a person’s ability to work. Which is how we got here.

      If you hire based on “disability” or discriminate, for or against people based on disability, I think you are doing your team, the candidate, and the organization a disservice. I, for example, don’t feel disabled. I am handicapped, not disabled.

      Maybe that’s the unclear part?

  5. You have a handicap. You are not handicapped. Or you have mobility and hearing disabilities. The point with being PC is trying not to categories anyone or label a person as this or that. It’s about describing a condition at times, and not the person as the condition.

    1. Thanks, Jesse. I like your description a lot. I can no longer find the url that made me so angry. Nuts.

      One of the problems when you call people disabled, at least in the US, is the idea that they are no longer able to work. That is what offends me. There are many things I cannot do, due to my disabilities. My disabilities handicap me. But, they do not affect my ability to perform my job.

      Now, I am very lucky, and I work very hard at arranging my life so I can perform my job. I also have great docs and excellent health care. Not everyone is in my position. I do my physical therapy, and I am working on the “next five pounds” (I think I’ll always be working on them!) so I maintain my best health.

      There are many jobs I cannot perform. But, my job? Yes, I can. And, I do. Very well.

      Does that make more sense?

  6. Thank you for your words. I was at an event for kids with disabilities, the event was called bike for kids. I was talking about the bike ride that they were going to do for those with disabilities and I asked were the handicap race was going to start? Not meaning in any negative way I said the word handicap because I thought that was the right term. Immediately this lady is blowing up in my face, telling me the origin of the word, how dare I say that about them, etc. I then proceeded to say I didn’t think it was bad to say, after all they are called handicap parking spaces and signs, and didn’t mean anything negative when I said that word. Once again this lady starts raking me over the coals, making me feel like a bigot, and intolerable human being. Until today I didn’t know it was “bad” to say handicap, or that it was politically incorrect! I didn’t mean it negative, and I can see how it can be taken negative so I will never say it again! But your article helped me feel better after such a negative interaction I had today! So thank you so very much for your words.

    1. Hi Derek. I’m working on a post that I hope to use this week tentatively called, “What Makes Your Heart Sing?” Look for it as the Question of the week post. My dear friend and colleague Doc List made a very funny handicapped joke. You’ll have to wait for the post. I just about fell down laughing.

      We have to be honest about what we are. Some of us, like me, are handicapped. Some of us, are disabled. There is a difference. Lumping us all together does no one any good.

      I like your idea of calling us handicapped!

      Thanks for writing.

  7. When it comes to the meaning of the two words, disabled & handicapped, in relationship to people, I see it this way. HANDICAPPED: Means a person has a physical or psychological problem that makes them do things, routine or not, in a different manner then would normally be done to achieve desired results. DISABLED: Means a person cannot do a specific task because of their handicap. Do not change a word. You wrote it the way you wanted it to be. No one has the right to force you change a word.

    1. HI Mark,

      I like the way you describe it. I certainly change the way I do things, to achieve the results I want. For me, this is the result of having a handicap. Since I’m still working full time, I don’t consider myself disabled. There are things I can’t do. Absolutely. There are things I won’t do.

      There are things I didn’t do before I had vertigo. My children tease me—I’m the only one I know who went on the “easy” roller-coaster at Disney, screaming the entire way. I didn’t have vertigo then. I was terrified :-) I certainly won’t take roller coaster now. Who needs to? I have one in my head!

  8. I just ran into your blog sort of by accident and am feeling encouraged. I am completely confused by the fact that people would prefer to be called “disabled” instead of “handicapped” and get plenty of crap for saying it. To have a handicap simply means that one has a built-in disadvantage or challenge…to be disabled essentially means that something or someone is useless or can’t function. I am just looking at the simple meanings of the word. Sadly, I feel that in many cases that the term disabled is itself dangerous, and a result of some people seeking victim status. They WANT to be disabled; and where I see this from is primarily from those within the ever growing expansion of what it means to be disabled. People with severe handicaps don’t feel the need to constantly remind us of them or fish for sympathy, but so many with so called ” invisible disabilities” never miss a chance to remind the world how hard things are for them and how they just can’t cope with life. I will never forget walking into a SSI/disability office to obtain a replacement SS card and seeing a guy working behind the window who was in a wheel chair and had major deformities of his body filing disability claims on behalf of able-bodied relatively young men on the other side of the window. I am of course mean-spirited though, because working probably caused them great “stress and anxiety” or “made it hard to focus” which is of course in 2014 just as legitimate a disability as having legs or eyes that don’t work properly. I would prefer any day to be a person with a built-in disadvantage or challenge (which to some extent or another EVERY human has) than to declare myself useless/disabled.

    1. HI Tim,

      I can’t speak for anyone else. I can only speak for myself. But, I have no idea why people who are relatively able-bodied would prefer to be called “disabled.” I don’t get it.

  9. Hi, great post, although I went looking for ‘a sane voice in the wilderness’ after seeing a lot of webpages such as “Why we don’t use the ‘H’ word” and offensive words to call disabled people which icluded the word handicap(ped).
    I have inattentive ADHD, which in the US you call ADD. I’ve had a late diagnosis for the condition last year at age 29 and also comorbid Dyspraxia which affects gross & fine movement coordination and handwriting. I used the word disable for many years but a part of me always felt betrayed by the term. Like others have said here it smacks to me of an inability to do something. “Dis” as a prefix is often negative. “dis”allowed, “dis”agree, “dis”associate, “dis”card etc. Whilst “Handicap” simply means you have a set back in any one particular direction, most importantly, like any sports team who has a temporary handicap (not a sports disability) you can create a system that once implemented can lead to as good, if not much better results in your field of endeavour.

    For example My dyspraxia made it harder to play my instruments. My solution was simple with this one: practice more. By the time I went to university to study composition, I quickly became known as the go-to-guy for anyone wanting a good saxophonist on their project or track.
    Also, as someone with ADHD, need to have external systems of organisation to make up for my lack of internal ones. I have fewer “men on my team” with that one so I have to have a better game plan to make my life workable ( I apologise for all the game analogies, it’s just the easiest describers for me to use this soon after I’ve woken up).

    Ultimately though handicap makes me more likely to utilise all my skills to make life more manageable and ensure my success. Whilst disabled cripples me aspiration wise, as it encourages me to give up on some things as permanently out of my reach.

    1. Hi Ash, exactly! I love what you said in your last paragraph. I decide what is not something I will do. On the other hand, thinking of my handicaps as just that–handicaps–means I am willing to work around them to find success.

  10. Thanks, Johanna, for this post. I edit English documents and am always running into what the politically correct term of the day is. They always change, and often the newly acceptable phrases strike me as rather more insensitive than the phrases they replace.

    Handicapped, impaired, disabled… the latter two imply judgement, as you and others have said. Handicapped, though, is used in a variety of ways that don’t suggest judgement of ability or outcome. Sports was already mentioned.

    A business may have a handicap as well – it may be less brand recognition, less market access, a small advertising budget… basically anything that a competitor may have but they don’t. And it’s quite common in business for the start-up with the handicap to far out-perform the bigger business with no handicap. The bigger business may not be as efficient, because things have been relatively easy. The smaller business with the handicap must hustle to find alternative ways to sell their product or service. Sometimes that alternative is much more effective than the standard way of doing things. Also, it creates a mindset of looking for different and more creative ways of doing things.

    Disabled is a word I just don’t want to accept. I know there are cases where something just might be impossible for someone, but even then I hate to put limits on what someone can do. People do the “impossible” all the time. I don’t want to put undue pressure on anyone, but I don’t see the point of labelling them with a word that puts limits on their abilities either. And disabled is a very limiting word.

    Anyway, I’m going with handicapped. I just needed a good argument to defend it if I am challenged on the word, and you gave me that. Thanks!

      1. Came across the comments by accident.
        I wonder if it’s not just a question of connotations, I believe it depends on where and when you were brought up as a native English speaker.
        The term ‘handicapped’ brings to my mind (English -GB) negative connotations, whereas ‘disabled’ doesn’t and we have ‘disability’ parking spaces and ‘welfare’ for those who have ‘disabilities’. The ‘politically correct’ moves around ‘people with disabilities’ rather than using ‘disabled’ to those with ‘people with differing abilities’

        As I say I feel uncomfortable calling anyone handicapped, not because they have a handicap, whether it be physical, mental or both as clearly they do. I prefer using ‘people with differing abilities’ because I feel it isn’t offensive to me and I cannot see that anyone would be ‘offended’.
        Obviously, it would be better if we looked at people for what they are and not through the the eyes of ‘media perfection’, and ridiculous reports of a person being able to do something because they were ‘disabled’ physically or mentally, as if it was unbelievable that they could/should.
        Barriers are meant to be broken, let them continue to fall…

        1. Sue, thank you for your different-for-me perspective.

          I am pretty open about being handicapped. I do have handicaps. I am unsafe at any speed without my rollator. I can’t hear out of my right ear. I don’t have differing abilities. I am lacking abilities. While I use the rollator (or a cane) to manage my vertigo and stay upright, my lack of balance and lack of hearing are handicaps.

          I’m not offended if you call them different abilities. I don’t feel as if they are different. I feel as if I am handicapped. We don’t have to agree. I appreciate your perspective. More ideas to consider.

  11. Shannon L Alwaise

    I know it’s been a while since your wrote this, but I’d just like to give my perspective. I am a wheelchair user who prefers the term disability, which I find to be a neutral term despite the dis in it. Handicapped just seems outdated to me despite its persistence when speaking of parking spaces. Disability just means to me there is some ability that most people have that is lacking, in my case ability to walk. It does not mean incapable of anything and certainly does not always mean inability to work – there are many jobs that do not require the ability to walk. (I know it can get confusing as the term is used for going on disability when you can’t work because of your condition). I work full time.. but no matter what term people refer to me as, most assume that I don’t work. I look at it this way….I always have a disability (can’t walk). A handicap is a disadvantage, and I don’t see myself as disadvantaged by my inability to walk in every situation. When I’m working on front of the computer, I am not disadvantaged. If I am confronted by a flight of stairs with no alternative, I am definitely disadvantaged. I don’t like any of the other terms – I don’t like differently abled (I lack the ability to walk, and the rest of my abilities are not different), handicapable (cringe-inducing, and I don’t need to combine handicap and capable – I certainly have many capabilities, none of them having to do with disability), or physically challenged (I don’t see my life as a series of obstacles to get over).

    1. Shannon, thank you so much for your perspective. I guess the thing that hits my hot button is the “dis” and the overloaded term of disabled. I like your idea of thinking about disability as something that is lacking. I was reacting to the term disabled as in not being able to work. Both of us agree on that.

      I do love what you said in your last sentence: “I don’t see my life as a series of obstacles to get over.” Very nice.

      When I’m tired or cranky (for me, cranky often arises from being tired), I do feel as life is a series of obstacles. That’s me, and I won’t project me on you. You might have more resilience than I do, certainly at times. Good for you!

      I appreciate you sharing your perspective. I try hard not to play the “Who is more challenged” game. We are not comparable. Each of us has a unique set of capabilities and how we manage them. Thanks for writing.

  12. I feel Handicapped is the better word to use. But officially i shall use the politically correct one anyway. Here’s my perspective.. ‘handicapped’ is a word invented for that particular use; to refer to persons with a physical disadvantage. On the other hand, ‘Disabled’ is a general term, one that can be used for many various occasions and circumstances not just for physical inability. In the end i feel its better to use a word that will not be confused for anything other than the intended use. I rest my case.

  13. I disagree with John. I do not think the word “handicapped” was invented to refer to persons with a physical disadvantage. I think it was a general term. There was a “Fake news” event suggesting it came from begging “cap in hand”, but I think that has been thoroughly discredited now. In fact the history of the word suggests it was an early example of PC usage. If you think about it, the best horse has the hardest handicap, so handicapped people can think of themselves as the best kind of people.

  14. I am also interested that there has been almost no flaming. Seems most people are fine with the word. I found your blog because I am interested, and I also spoke to a lady who works in a charity that uses the word. She said they had had 2 complaints in 26 years. One was fairly gentle, the other was highly aggressive. It came from a passer-by, who had no connection to the charity, but had seen their sign on from a bus.

    1. I have a theory. (I always have a theory.) Here goes: Many people who are fully abled/no apparent handicaps, feel as if they don’t have a right to comment on the wording. I also suspect they haven’t thought through the words.

      I assume you meant flaming in public, not here. I’m busy flaming here, not so much in public. Unless someone runs past me to use the handicapped stall in the bathroom. Then, I mention something.

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