Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Another Swing with the Handicapped Stick

"I don't see much wrong with that story," said my friend Carter, referring to the repeated use of the word handicapped in a news story. He goes on to say, "The city officials are proud of their finally making the beach accessible for all ...so that's what they emphasized, and the reporter simply reported their words."

I cannot say whether it was the city officials or the reporter who found the word "handicapped" and wore it out. If it were the officials, the reporter should have stretched his vocabulary. If it was the reporter, he was either ignorant or lazy.

Carter goes on to say, "Yes, handicapped is negative -- so is disabled or any other word that describes a person who can't perform some particular activity that most people can perform. Neither handicapped nor disabled saysanything other that, as far as I can see ... The word handicapped strikes me as not worth fighting about ... I'd say the best thing to do is to thank the city officials for finally doing something good ... Maybe I'm wrong. Tell me why."

I think people with disabilities fight so hard against negative words -- negative is pejorative -- because much like a winning Thoroughbred is handicapped by extra weight at his next race, a person with a disability seeking to live to the fullest, seeking to enjoy equal opportunities, is handicapped by negative perceptions when negative words are bandied about.

Words are tools. Advertisers use words to persuade. Educators use words to teach. Politicians use words to propagandize.

In that regard, I think people with disabilities seek to use words that are neutral, inclusive, and positive in order to reinforce the idea that all citizens should be perceived as having equal opportunities as afforded by the government, corporate, and social element of society.

Carter says, "When real prejudice exists, words don't matter. Racism is alive and well among vast numbers ofpeople who wouldn't think of using the N-word."

True enough, I suppose, but elimination of that heinous word has been one step toward a more civil public discourse about race. The same might be said for invalid and shut-in, two particularly demeaning words applied to some people with disabilities. Both, like the N-word, cheapen the discussion of social relations.

Applying that logic to the news story in question, I think the repetition of negative terminology obscures the impetus for the action: public property should be accessible to everyone.

I look forward to the day that announcing an accessible venue will be as necessary as announcing a new theater has been built with chairs to accommodate those who don't bring their own.

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