Crippled, handicapped or disabled?

Night before last we were having dinner.  The discussion turned to teeth, and my younger daughter asked whether she could get braces.  We explained that first you have to lose all of your baby teeth, and as late bloomers (read: slow tooth losers), we assured her it would be some time before she’d get them – if ever.  You see, my husband believes braces are exclusively cosmetic and therefore unnecessary.  He told her she’ll only get them (and I quote), “If your teeth are uglier than mine.”  My husband never had braces, and his teeth aren’t bad.  I said something like, “Well, neither of you girls really needs to worry, it’s not like you have buck teeth.”  Yes, I am super sensitive.

So the conversation then turned of course to buck teeth, with my husband telling us about a girl he used to have a crush on when he was a kid.  She had buck teeth and, not surprisingly, was called Bucky.  Which is mean and awful, but as my husband said, truthfully, pretty much every kid with buck teeth is called Bucky at some point.  And so we laughed and felt bad at the same time, when all of a sudden I blurted out, “Well, I used to like a cripple!”

My husband gasped, our daughters too.  They looked at me as if I’d said something unspeakable.  So I explained.  When I young, there was a kid at my church – well, he didn’t really go to my church, but he must have been related to someone who did, because he came occasionally.  Anyway, this boy had some sort of medical problem, I don’t know what it was, and he walked with arm canes.  Whenever he traveled he had to kind of swing from side to side.  I remember holding the door open for him once, getting an up-close look at his sandy hair and beautiful eyes.  I had a serious crush on him.  My husband’s response?  “Oh, you pitied him.”  To which I indignantly replied, “Absolutely not.  I liked him because he was really cute.  He just happened to be crippled.”  Again with the stares.  My husband looked at me and said, “Umm.. I think you mean he was DISABLED.”

The conversation then turned to the proper term for a person with a physical issue, such as the boy I had a crush on.  I advocated (solo) for crippled, or handicapped.  My husband stated that ‘disabled’ is the widely-accepted term, as in the “Americans with Disabilities Act.”  I countered that regardless of the Act, calling someone ‘disabled’ implies they are less than able.  Whereas, saying they’re crippled or handicapped just means they have a medical problem, which everyone understands, and does not imply anything else.

SO.  My question is – who’s right?  As someone who suffers from a chronic illness (Meniere’s disease), I wouldn’t like to be labeled as ‘disabled,’ though I certainly am crippled by episodes when they arise.  If you live without a limb or with a serious medical condition, are you disabled or simply challenged?  What do you think??

To learn more about the interesting history of the three terms – crippled, handicapped, and disabled – CLICK HERE.  Thank you, GrammarPhobia.com!

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6 thoughts on “Crippled, handicapped or disabled?

  1. Hey Jackie! I agree that crippled does sound “old timey” – you definitely don’t hear people using the term, at least not frequently and/or publicly, the way you do disabled. But I think it manages to convey a physicality of things that we all understand, without complications. I hope others weigh in with their thoughts, particularly those affected by the terms.

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  2. There was a great episode of 99% Invisible where they discussed redesigning the International Symbol of Access (known to many as the handicap symbol): http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/icon-for-access/ My takeaway was to give the symbol more movement so that it does not depict someone who is helpless. Anyway, as they phrase it in the article, I believe the acceptable phrase is “someone with a disability.” We all have different degrees of disabilities (I for one am physically able but can be mentally disabled by large crowds) but in the end we’re still people; not defined solely by our disabilities.

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  3. I like the idea of redesigning the symbol to imply movement. Wheelchair as freedom, not just necessity.

    I don’t think cripple will ever come into comfortable usage again, except maybe by those who can OWN it. Saying “I’m a cripple” is a hell of a lot different than “look at the cripple.” It’s too much like the N word – loaded and offensive. Yet there is something about it that speaks to me. There are definitely times when I feel crippled by menieres.

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