People ask me whether I think we as a group should be called “handicapped,” “disabled,” “differently-abled,” or “physically challenged.” And I’m sure there are other labels or euphemisms for “crippled” or “paralyzed” (or for abnormal mental processes). Two of those terms are really a mouthful. I like handicapped best, because it is absolutely true. I no longer mind being referred to as disabled, because I am “ambulatorily” disabled, just not completely. I can stand, and I can walk, though on some days I cannot do much of either. But most people take that for granted, so in this sense, I accept that I am disabled.
Sometimes people say to me, “Oh, you aren’t crippled!” I always want to say, “What the heck do you think crippled is?” I don’t say this unless it’s someone I’ve come to know really well. I guess to some people “crippled” means all gnarled up and basically unable to get out of a wheelchair. I have a paralyzed deformed foot and my leg is two inches shorter, atrophied, and partially paralyzed; my hip is remarkably malformed. One doctor has called my walk “a horrendous limp.” That’s crippled. The dictionary definition of crippled is “deformed or having the inability to be used normally, to lack considerable strength.” The dictionary also says it is a synonym for lame. Lame says it means crippled, or “having at least one limb that cannot be used normally; having a limp.” So, in htat circular logic, I fit the dictionary definitions of crippled or lame, handicapped or disabled.
Now, “lame” unfortunately gets thrown around a lot, as in “a lame idea.” I’ve probably even said that, and it’s not uncommon for people to say similar things around me. I had a wonderful employer once; a great gal, who said things like, “You can’t just be limping along with this work.” I drew her attention to how freely she threw those metaphors and similes around and she was appalled at herself and apologized. I told her it was OK; that I knew she didn’t mean it to be about me, but I was uncomfortable with those kinds of terms being used to negatively describe something I did.
OK, considering all that, no, I don’t want you to refer to me in my presence as crippled or lame. But within the disabled community, I have no problem referring to us as “crips.” Once at a relationship seminar in the mid-1980’s, the moderator had the cheek to ask me, “How does your boyfriend feel about you being a crip?” I think now that he just wanted to get me to think about the disability issue, because it was probably an elephant in the room to him. I was shocked at the time, but later realized it was a good question. I was a bit defensive and told the guy that my boyfriend didn’t care. But I didn’t actually know that, and he was not with me at the seminar.
Handicapped is accurate for me. I can do a lot, but, I have to be given some leeway. I need some lead time. That’s a handicap. Disabled seems to imply that we have few abilities. Physically challenged is true, but, it sounds so cumbersome, and it could simply mean clumsy. Differently-abled may sound great to some people, particularly those with learning disabilities. For me as a physically handicapped person, “differently” just seems to be glossing over the fact that I cannot do a lot of stuff. “Differently, no sh*t,” I thought, when I first heard that label.
I do not like being called “a polio” and a lot of elderly polio survivors use that term, common in the 1940’s. Many polio survivors don’t like it. I heard a historian on Ken Burns’ “The Roosevelts” TV series repeatedly call the patients at Warm Springs “the polios” and President Roosevelt “a polio.” Jeez. I don’t call HIV patients “an HIV” or a Parkinson’s patient “a Parkinson’s.” I have said “a diabetic,” but not “a diabetes”.
You’re going to have to try out different labels, and keep asking what people want. When you become even slightly handicapped, challenged or disabled, which is probably going to happen if you stick around long enough, you’ll find out how it is you perceive your own condition, and how you want others to perceive or label it.