Finding the best language to talk about disability

Discussions about the proper terms to use include a variety of opinions

Kristin Neva avatar

by Kristin Neva |

Share this article:

Share article via email
main graphic for

I recently came across a CNN opinion piece by writer s.e. smith titled “Jokes about disability aren’t taboo. But here’s who shouldn’t be telling them.” I read on, because my husband and I often use humor to deal with the difficulty of life with ALS, as Todd is paralyzed and I am his full-time caregiver.

Smith quotes Dave Chappelle from his stand-up comedy special “The Dreamer,” on Netflix: “There’s probably a handicap in the back right now ’cause that’s where they make them sit.” And then smith says, “It was a line the audience was apparently supposed to find funny, relying on an outdated and offensive term for disability and a crack about where many people think disabled people belong: Out of sight and out of mind.”

I told Todd about the column and Chapelle’s line. He laughed out loud and thought smith was missing the point. “Chapelle wasn’t expressing his attitude toward people with disabilities, but rather that public spaces are often not that accommodating.” Even in the newer public venues, accessible seating is typically in the back.

Recommended Reading
banner image for James Clingman's column

Living my life in the key of D minor 

Todd pointed out that humor is often used to highlight the absurdity of life, which is true, but what grabbed my attention was smith’s perspective that “handicap” is an outdated and offensive term for “disability.” But who decides what language is offensive?

Todd and I came across this controversy five years ago after we posted a video about accessible vans on our YouTube channel, “ALS411 – Tips and Tricks for Disabled Living.”

In the video, I twice reference Todd’s “handicapped-accessible van,” and I talk about “handicapped parking.” At the time, I had no idea there was any controversy around the word. We were just trying to share information that might be helpful to the ALS community, but someone commented, “We are disabled not handicapped.”

Todd replied, “Interesting that you prefer ‘disabled.’ Neither term has bothered me in the slightest, but if pressed I would say handicapped is a more accurate description. Handicapped implies limited skills — coming from the words “handy” (meaning clever or skilled) and “capped” (meaning limited). Disabled means the opposite of able, or not able. When we use the word disabled to talk about a thing, we generally mean that it doesn’t work at all. I still have a lot of abilities, but they are certainly limited. So I guess I would prefer the word ‘handicapped.’”

Someone else jumped in with the observation that in the U.K., the term handicapped is archaic and is regarded as somewhat offensive, though they recognized that it was still an acceptable word in other places and didn’t have a problem with it as long as people are well-meaning.

Another person referred to himself as handicapped in his comment sharing the value he found in his rear-entry van.

Our community has a variety of opinions about this issue.

An etymology

Ronald Amundson, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, posted an article titled “About the Meaning of ‘Handicap.’” In it, he traces the etymology of the word and dispels the myth that it originated from people begging for money with “cap in hand.” As far as he knows, the first use of the word was in 1653, referring to a trading game in which money was put into a cap.

In 1750, the word began to apply to horse races. This broadened to other competitions and is still used today, such as in golf, when a handicap is a benefit given to inferior players. The first use of handicap to designate a mental or physical impairment was in 1915.

“Many people dislike the term because of its association with old-fashioned attitudes towards impairments,” Amundson writes. “That’s a perfectly good reason to avoid the term.”

Language changes with time, and the reasons are not always clear. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 may have influenced the preference for the word “disability,” and most states have since eliminated the term “handicapped” in reference to reserved parking spaces and people with disabilities. I don’t know why some people think “disabled” is a better term than “handicap,” but I don’t want my words to be a barrier to people understanding my point.

We didn’t parse the nuance of the word “disabled” when we named our YouTube channel, but I now try to pair it with the word “with” — Todd is a person “with disabilities.” Since posting that video, I’ve avoided using the term “handicap” or even “handicapped-accessible.” Instead, I just use the word “accessible” when referring to seating, vehicles, or parking spaces. And when talking about Todd’s condition, I try to be specific, referring to him as having ALS and being paralyzed.

In any case, we should have grace for those with disabilities and all who advocate for them.

Note: ALS News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of ALS News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to ALS.


Mike Eames avatar

Mike Eames

Reading this article just reminds me, there are people who can’t be happy until they find something that offends them. I am a person living with ALS who couldn’t give a hoot on whether you call it handicapped or disabled. Good on Todd for finding humor in what Chapelle said.


Leave a comment

Fill in the required fields to post. Your email address will not be published.