Braille Monitor                          January 2019

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Are We Handicapped, Disabled, or Something Else?

by C. Edwin Vaughan

C. Edwin VaughanFrom the Editor: What is in a word? We have long debated whether words create our reality or reality creates our words. If the former is true, the word we use can be limiting and even devaluing.

We know that we are blind. Some of us can't see at all; others of us see so little that we primarily use the techniques of blindness to be productive. But beyond blind, what are we? Are we handicapped, disabled, differently abled, or are we “people with sight loss” or “people with visual limitations”? Though we have had thoughtful essays on the subject, we still lack clarity.

Dr. C. Edwin Vaughan is a former professor of sociology at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He is good at making us look at these hard questions, often pointing the way to what is wrong, but leaving to us the task of figuring out what is right. Here is what he says about the history of the words we use to describe us and their not-so-subtle implications:

For more than two decades the NFB has stressed that we are changing what it means to be blind. All blind people internalize notions about blindness acquired from parents, teachers, rehab workers, and the general public. The most significant barriers to our being integrated into the wider community come from the way blindness and vision loss are framed or portrayed in the wider community. Blindness is viewed as a characteristic that creates a large gulf between the sighted and people with lesser degrees of vision.  Since examples of the framing of blindness come from the widespread use of the words “handicapped” and “disabled” as general descriptions of blindness, it is helpful to understand the origin of these two words.

John Simpson is one of the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. He is also the author of a delightful new book, The Word Detective: Searching for the Meaning of It All at the Oxford English Dictionary (Basic Books, New York 2001). He has researched the history of a great many commonly used words and phrases. The words “handicap” and “disability” specifically caught his attention because his second daughter Ellie has Angelman Syndrome, “A rare genetic disorder causing severe mental disability and characterized by ataxia, creating a person who is affectionate and cheerful but blissfully unaware of many things, most especially the need for speech.” (P. 191) Simpson then applied his lexicographic skills to analyze some of the words used to describe people such as his daughter. Here is what he says:

Ability is another of those words that entered English in the Middle Ages from France. But the French didn’t give us disability. We had to work that one out for ourselves. Our first record of the term dates from 1545, in the general sense “lack of ability (to do something).”

But the specific application of the word to a person’s mental or physical incapacity also comes from around the same period: it was first noted in 1561, and contrasts strongly with many of the other words used at the time (such as imbecility, dumbness, etc.) for personal-disability terms which are now no longer regarded as acceptable. We might be surprised that a “neutral” word was so prevalent in the sixteenth century… Why did disability become the more acceptable term? The word handicap dates from the seventeenth century, over a century after disability. It comes from a time when the English enjoyed experimenting with new vocabulary. But at first the term had nothing to do with disability. In the beginning, handicap was a game. As the OED [Oxford English Dictionary]says, it was “a game in which one person claims an article belonging to another and offers something in exchange, an umpire being chosen to decide the difference of value between the two articles, to be made up in money by the owner of the less valuable one.” The handicap, then, is the difference between the value of two items, or the value you have to add to one to make it equivalent to the other...

By the eighteenth century, the word handicap attached itself to horse-racing, on the same logic.  An official decided the extra weight to be carried by a horse to equalize its chances of winning.  Originally the agreement was conducted between two principals with a cap, as in the game, but later bureaucracy took over.  The meaning seeped into various sports in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries.

It wasn’t until around 1888 that the handicap was first applied to physical or mental disability. The earliest records for this come from the United States.  At first it was regarded as a perfectly normal expression—an acknowledgement of the difference in ability between two people.  But, by the later twentieth century, handicap had come to be considered generally unacceptable: an unfamiliar-looking word implying too marked and dismissive a distinction between the able and the disabled.  Maybe the expression also seemed to imply going “cap in hand” to beg for public assistance (Simpson, 188-190).

Although the label “handicap” is out of favor we have institutionalized the concept of disability throughout the general culture. One of the most visible examples is the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In his 2018 banquet address at the NFB National Convention President Mark Riccobono observed that blindness has always been observed as a characteristic that distinguishes someone who lacks ability (speech as published in the August-September 2018 Braille Monitor). Are we making a mistake by accepting without questioning the concept of disability as it is generally applied to blind people? “Dis” is a negative prefix. No one likes to be dissed; why should we like to be disabled?

What does it mean to be able? Is every person with average vision able to do everything? Obviously not—sighted people are as variable as people with limited sight. Sighted people demonstrate an enormous range of what individuals can accomplish. Yet we apply this concept in a most general way to all individuals who are blind or have limited vision.  For the general public ability is individualized: everyone is different. However, as a group all blind people are disabled.

How can we as a social movement change the way our individuality is portrayed? Clearly words like differently abled buy into the same general problem. What concept can focus on our potential as individuals? If these ideas have merit, perhaps they can be developed and better analyzed in the many philosophic discussions that occur in chapter meetings and at our three national centers.

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