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OP-ED | Removing ‘Handicapped’ And The Cycle of Change

by | Sep 18, 2015 4:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Equality, Opinion

My parents raised me to have pretty good values. One of those values I learned as a child was to call people what they want to be called. I took it to heart because, with a funny surname, I was called a lot of scatological epithets that can’t be repeated here.

Still, I have to wonder about the American practice of constantly reassessing labels or images and assigning new ones to make the disadvantaged feel better.

To wit, a Change.org petition is being circulated on social media that calls upon lawmakers in Hartford to change the iconography and wording on state handicapped parking signs. The petition had 1,158 signatures as of yesterday.

The signers want the state to change the word “handicapped” to “reserved” on the signs. As for the new icon, it “still has someone in a wheelchair, but shows the person leaning forward as opposed to sitting straight up, depicting a more active person. Advocates say the new graphic emphasizes the person, not the wheelchair,” reports CT News Junkie’s Cara Rosner.

As more than one reader has been happy to point out, the proposed change in policy, while no doubt well intentioned, will do nothing to stop by far the greatest injustice associated with these signs: the miscreants who park in handicapped spaces and have no business doing so. Wouldn’t lawmakers’ time be better spent focusing on abuses such as those who park illegally without a permit or the able-bodied who display the handicapped stickers of their long-dead grandmothers?

I recall blogging about this very topic in 2007 when the state Department of Mental Retardation was in the process of changing its name to the Department of Developmental Services. I pointed out that when it was first conceived, “mental retardation” was a perfectly honest clinical term.

So too were terms such as idiot, imbecile, and moron — all of which were equally honest terms to denote varying degrees of mental retardation. The current Mansfield Training School, for example, was originally founded in 1860 in my home town of Lakeville as the “Connecticut School for Imbeciles.” After the term was deemed offensive, the name of the institution was changed to the Connecticut Training School for the Feebleminded.

In 1917, the school was merged with the Connecticut Colony for Epileptics in Mansfield, where a new, 350-acre campus called the Mansfield Training School and Hospital was opened.

At that time, advocates for those with IQs under 70 preferred the term mentally retarded. It was accurate and it was not considered pejorative. But now, after decades of use, the term that carried less baggage has finally developed its own stigma. “Developmentally disabled” is currently the preferred term.

Ditto some other terms that I have run across in my career. When I first started teaching in 1982, students with auditory processing difficulties or reading disorders were labeled “learning disabled.” Previously, they had been called “slow learners.”

But after repeated use, learning disabled acquired a stigma, so by the mid-90s my headmaster (and many others in the education field) preferred “learning challenged” or — get this — “differently abled.”

During that time, Orientals became Asians, American Indians became Native Americans, black Americans became African Americans, blind people became visually impaired, and so forth. Were the previous names offensive? I guess you’d have to ask those whom the names describe, but what changes in the interim to make a term unacceptable when once it was fine?

In some cases a more accurate term was found, but in others, the name had taken on a negative connotation through nothing more than repeated use.

I’m slowly but surely losing my hearing in my left ear. And when I do, I will be deaf in that ear — not hearing impaired. Sometimes the new euphemisms are actually harmful. How about “food insecure” — a term that masks the perilous state of being hungry and malnourished. And whom would you rather give money to? A charity for the food insecure or one for the starving?

“No one with an accessibility need wants to be thought of as ‘handicapped,’” the Change.org petition states. Nor, I’m sure, does anyone want to be thought of as disabled. But that’s what people who legally use handicapped spaces are. Soon, in an effort to obliterate all traces of a stigma, the petitioners will want to remove the wheelchair from the sign as well. Then where will we be?

Sometimes if a name acquires baggage over generations, it’s best to simply stick with it. Or change it and be prepared to do it again in another 25 years.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(3) Archived Comments

posted by: osemasterofdoom | September 18, 2015  12:09pm


A very thoughtful and well-reasoned piece.  I can’t help but wonder how many of the petition signers are disabled themselves. 

Frankly, since I am not in any category affected by the blue signs, it’s really none of my business to interfere.  If the community affected by this feels strongly enough to advocate for this change, they should have at it; that’s the way the system is supposed to work. 

I think too many outside people, though well-intentioned, inject themselves into debates they really have no business involving themselves in. If only, say, 10 percent of a group’s members cares enough to advocate for a change, shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that 90 percent of that group is just indifferent? 

Sometimes apathy is not an indication of people being lazy or not being informed.  Sometimes, people are apathetic because they’re just fine with the way things are.

posted by: KeithE | September 22, 2015  7:37am

Excellent article Terry!  You have said what millions of others are thinking. The PC folks are running amok again, and we’re supposed to accept everything they choose to change, no matter how foolish. The real reason these changes are made is to make the liberal PC gang somehow feel better about themselves.  Let’s stop the insanity!

posted by: SocialButterfly | September 23, 2015  11:15am

We should push ticket violators of handicapped parking signs. Too many do not care and park illegally, with no permit, or using someone else’s parking permit. If the fines for violations were enforced ($150 to $500) a lot of money would be available to pay for police enforcement cost outlay. Tickets on cars parked illegally in Disabled Parking spaces at this period of time are rarely seen. Although people are apparently violating more other motor vehicle laws at present which may be stretching police enforcement thin.

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