Sunday, July 18, 1999

Smallest words can change perceptions

Enquirer contributor

        Buried in a list of bills pending in the Ohio legislature is one that will certainly not make front page news.

        Introduced by Rep. Amy Salerno (R-Columbus), Ohio House Bill 264 would substitute the term “disability” for “handicap” in the law pertaining to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and other related laws.

        HB264 passed the Ohio House of Representatives on May 26, and was introduced June 1 in the Ohio Senate, where it was referred to the Judiciary Committee.

        A law to change one simple word may seem frivolous, but it's only one more tiny step toward the attention needed to our language if our collective aim is to have words reflect attitudes of acceptance and equality.

        Consider the headline which ran recently on an Associated Press story about Georgia Senator Max Cleland agreeing to be featured in Esquire: “Crippled senator allows photographs.” The headline wallopped readers with a veritable fistful of negative images regarding disability.

        “Crippled senator” conjures no tions of one who is broken, defective, not whole. Max Cleland, who lost two legs and an arm in a Vietnam grenade explosion is none of those things.

        To say that the “cripple” “allows photographs” extends the notion that his disability is a natural source of shame and embarrassment. If this were a non-disabled politician permitting a feature story in a national magazine, the permission would be seen for what it is: a willingness to have one's privacy invaded for the possible payoff of benefitting others.

        The word “disability” in place of “handicap” makes sense. It communicates a clear image, plain fact. It carries no more apology or one-down sense than terms like older adult, child, person of color, or woman of courage.

        “Special needs” or “challenged,” on the other hand, are cover-up words. Their meanings are unclear and they are covers for shame.

        The words that are most troublesome, though, are those little words generally used to define specific disabling conditions, so often used in other contexts to reveal how we really feel about disabilities.

        To say, for example, that someone is “deaf and dumb” in regard to a situation reaches beyond the target of the insult to convey that all people with speech and/or hearing impairments are clueless. To berate a friend as “retard” is to imply that all people with developmental disabilities are incompetent. To scoff at someone missing the point “You must be blind!” launches the attitude that blindness equates stupidity or ignorance.

        Used correctly, simple words can be the best words. If your child is autistic, say so. If your brother has mental retardation, it is one of his characteristics and no better or worse than his curly hair. The more we can use clear, honest language to talk about ourselves or our loved ones with disabilities, the more plainly the message that we are proud human beings will be carried by our words.

        The headline screeched that the “cripple” allowed his disability to be photographed for Esquire. My guess is that Max Cleland is far from being ashamed of his loss of limbs. Like many other amputees and people with other disabilities, he is undoubtedly proud that he has achieved so much and come so far from the time of his life-changing injury.

        And, far from being a cripple, he like 50 million other Americans with disabilities, is a very whole person.

        Deborah Kendrick, a Cincinnati free-lance writer, is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write: Deborah Kendrick, Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; e-mail:


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