Why the Word “Handicapped” Should Be Eliminated From Our Vocabulary

When we hear the word “handicap,” most people think of a person with a disability. That’s what society has taught us to think. Parking spots that are designated for people with disabilities have always been referred to as “handicap parking spots.” Bathroom stalls that are designed for people who use wheelchairs, or need extra space, have been referred to as “handicap stalls.” So, it’s no surprise that the word “handicap” has been socially accepted for so long. When you think of the word “handicap,” what do you think of? I think of golf. Golfers are given a handicap that is based on their potential playing ability. Handicaps allow players at different levels to play against each other on somewhat equal terms. Most of us don’t think of golf, however.

Disabilities can affect anyone at anytime. There are countless ways to become disabled. It can happen to you, your friends and any of your family members, at any age. It can be a fluke accident, a botched surgery, an illness, etc.. No one is immune. So, why do we segregate an entire group of people (a group that any of us can be members of at any time) by titling them “handicapped?” Would you want to be given that title if you had a disability? Or would you want to do your best to not allow your disability to restrict you from doing the things you want to do, and in return, to not constantly be told you are unequal?

The ADA (American Disability Act) has already enacted the use of the word “disability” in replacement of “handicap,” so it’s time the rest of us follow suit. It will take a conscious effort, but the change is necessary. In addition to removing “handicap” from our vocabulary, here are a few more common terms that have negative connotations and should be avoided:

Disabled person

Referring to someone as a “disabled person” is dehumanizing. It refers to the disability as a characteristic of the person’s identity. If you have to say it at all, say “person with a disability.” Person-first terminology implies that the person’s disability is a part of them, but doesn’t define them. We are all people first. Being rich doesn’t define us, neither does being poor, college educated, a high school dropout, overweight or thin. Same with our ethnicity and religion. We are all human, and that defines our very existence. Most people prefer to go by their name, anyway.


Just because someone might not be able to see you well, or at all, doesn’t mean they can’t hear you call them visually impaired. The same goes for someone who is Deaf. The word “impaired” emphasizes what someone can’t do instead of what they can. No need to use fancy words to dance around what may or may not be politically correct. Stick with Blind and Deaf, but remember to use person-first terminology.


According to the LPA (Little People of America), many people of short stature consider the word “midget” to be a slur. “Dwarf” has had negative connotations in the past as well, but has recently been okayed by the LPA. Other proper language to use is “little person” or “person of short stature.” Or again, saying the person’s name usually works too.


It’s not surprising that this word is offensive. It is too often used as a slang word to describe something that is stupid or idiotic, and it makes sense that no human would want to be referred to as stupid. The term “mental retardation” is finally being eliminated from the international classifications of diseases and disorders. Which means, it should no longer be socially acceptable (was it ever?) to use the word. Ever. If you need to describe someone’s cognitive disability, it’s best to say “person with an intellectual disability.”


Calling someone a victim of a certain ailment is considered demeaning. It’s disempowering to feel like a victim of anything. There is nothing positive about the word “victim,” but there are endless positive things about people who happen to have a disability.

Wheelchair Bound

Let’s say you get into a terrible accident and you’ve lost your ability to walk. How would you get around? A wheelchair, probably, because without a wheelchair, you would be bound to your home. You couldn’t go anywhere unless someone carried you. And that’s not fun or safe for anyone involved. Wheelchairs are legs for those people whose legs don’t work. They are enabling and allow people to have independence and freedom. They increase accessibility and allow for opportunity. That’s the opposite of binding.

While all of these words are universally unaccepted in the disability community, different people prefer different terminology. If you aren’t sure what words to use – ask. The chances of you offending someone by asking are a lot smaller than if you don’t. Every person is unique. Ultimately, if you don’t want to offend someone, just say the person’s name. And throw in a smile, because why not?

For more information on disability awareness, visit Open Doors.

Featured image via LynnUniversity