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Home Stories Mark My Words PROUDLY INSENSITIVE


Today I used the word, handicapped, in a sentence. It was awkward. It means someone holding a cap in his hand, begging for money; that’s that’s the origin of the word. I always see that image when I hear the word.

I used the word in the context of finding a parking space, because I am allowed to park in designated spots when my son is in the car with me. He has been crippled since he came into the world, but people cringe when I say that word. It now has a stigma. People who are sensitive about the handicapped -- not necessarily people themselves who are handicapped, but people who “advocate” for them -- are horrified if we say “crippled.” For a while we were OK to say disabled. But then someone who is sensitive on their behalf insisted they are not dis-abled, (don’t “dis” them!), they are differently abled.

So for a while I was stuck saying differently-abled. Now I’m supposed to say handicapped, but that sticks in my craw. There’s no stigma in a word that implies a crippled person holding his cap upside down hoping someone will drop pennies into it?

People in general are very compliant about using the “accepted” terminology, at least in formal conversation. Many of the same people will still privately refer to someone as a re-tard. Forcing new terminology on us in order to obliterate old words does not confer new attitudes.

And someone whose development is retarded, meaning simply that it isn’t keeping pace with most other people, cannot be called retarded any longer. That has a stigma. Now the term is, uh, developmentally-delayed; I guess. I’m not sure any more.

On the other hand, we can still say someone is blind or deaf. We often hear the more-sensitive terms, visually-impaired and hearing-impaired, but there is still no stigma in the original words.

My father was deaf. He lost his eardrums and inner ear structures to childhood infections, which continued to plague him all his life. From my earliest recollections of him in the early 1950s, my father, who was bald, had a metal band across his head with a wire that ran down into his shirt. On one end of the metal band was a bone-conducting hearing aid. In the pocket of his T-shirt was metal box about the size of a cigarette pack that contained a microphone that picked up other people's speech and ambient sounds and an amplifier that sent a signal up the wire and caused the cap on the end of the metal band to vibrate against the bone, behind his ear.

He never considered himself handicapped, just hard-of-hearing. But once in a while he would say: “I’m deaf, you know. Now run that by me a little slower.” That was the only accommodation he demanded.

In college I knew a blind musician and classmate. He was quite independent, but if, for instance, we arrived at the cafeteria simultaneously he would sometimes ask which line was shorter or what looked good. He had an aversion to food that didn’t look palatable to those of us who could see it. One time, as a group of us were rising from our chairs to leave the cafeteria, he spoke up loudly and said: “Hey, don’t forget the blind guy!” No one denied him the accommodation of waiting or walking interference for him, but he was so easily included that he sometimes had to remind us, or me anyway, what our own blindness failed to tell us about his.

He did not call himself hard-of-seeing. When he had to say anything about it, the word was “blind”.

In our culture, most of us are deficient in some way when compared with the perfect male or female specimen, whatever we conceive that to be. I am now officially old. I am not retired. (Just semi-retired; I’m down to 40 hours a week now.) I might be lured to join an American Association of Old People, but I am not going near the politically-charged American Association of Retired People. There are people who are shorter than others, and it’s still safe to joke about the vertically-challenged. Some alarming percentage of us are fat, although for accuracy in grammar I would say “fattened”. There is a push to refer to fat people as “obese”, but that is a medical term, and to mis-apply it is to dilute its medical significance. Many of us have invisible or barely-visible challenges, such as sensitivity to touch, aversion to odors, post-traumatic alertness, developmental delays, uncertainties of perception, chronic fatigue, addictions to fatal poisons, auto-immune deficiencies, allergies, and so on.

People with allergies have not banded together and demanded to be known as the differently-sensitive, just as people who are blind, so far as I know, have not formed a national organization of the luminosity-impaired.

All of us seem to fall into one of three groups: (A) those who have a physical or mental challenge, (B) those who generally do not, and (C) those who generally do not but are horrified that a label exists to describe someone else’s challenge.

People in (C) are more likely classify people, in effect to label them, and are more likely themselves to join groups which have an attractive social agenda. People in (C) want to propose solutions to all social problems, but first they must identify a problem to solve and to associate that problem with a group of victims. (C) people are sensitive on behalf of (A) people. So (C) people, through their chosen social agents such as the news media and political-influence organizations, take offense on behalf of (A) people. But it is people in (B) who inadvertently and mostly innocently commit the offenses that (C) people are upset about on behalf of (A) people.

People in (C) gave us political-correctness. Some people in (B), and quite a few in (A), happily carry on with deliberate disregard for the sensitivities of (C) people.

When I was fat, I called myself fat. Now I call myself old. And when I become crippled with age, guess what I’ll call myself?

Labels have indeed been used to offend and, more horribly, to do social and physical harm to people. The most infamous label of all, in America’s regrettable past, has been “nigger”. It was used by superior-minded lighter-skinned people with effective derision. It had to go. And yet, the word from which it is derived is Negro, and that, to me, has always been a dignified term. I grew up in a neighborhood dominated by descendants of American slaves, who personified the dignity of the term, and used it themselves.

Frankly, any word that refers to a person’s skin color is useless now. Our culture demands that skin tone is irrelevant, except as one’s pallor helps pinpoint an ailment or one’s race suggests a predisposition to a certain disease.

When I worked at a truck stop in Bangor in the 1970s, a certain member of the Penobscot Nation, Joe, used to frequent the pumps and the restaurant. He was big and boisterous and friendly, but a little bit intimidating, too. During a discussion one time, Leo, one of the guys who worked there, said in Joe’s presence, “Let’s ask the Indian.” I don’t remember what the question was, but Joe said in all sincerity, “You can call me an Injun, but don’t call me an Indian.” This whole exchange startled me a bit, because I knew that Leo, too, was an “Injun”. Maybe it was something personal between them, but I’ve never forgotten what Joe said.

It comes down to this: It’s not a matter of labels and stigmas and sensitivities. It’s a matter of language. Did you know there is still a Crippled Children’s Foundation still very active in the U.S.? It was founded in 1929 and has deflected all attacks on its name. Its focus was on children who were crippled, who were dealt a raw deal, and who deserved some attention. It is a compassionate use of the word, on behalf of a population, crippled children, who are urgently in need of compassion, not a lesson in fake sensitivity.

The United Negro College Fund is still in existence, the people who trademarked: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

And the Penobscot Nation still refers to their land in Old Town as Indian Island. If it’s good enough for the Penobscots, it’s good enough for me. I’m 100% native American, myself; I was born in the United States, and that’s all the qualification I need for that label.

If there is a need to describe something, there is probably a word for it. If some ignorant people use the word with scorn or ridicule, the rest of us, which is still most of us, need to recapture the word and treat the mis-use to the obscurity it deserves. Heck, even the word, “label”, now has a stigma. Don’t put a label on that dress! Put a maker’s tag on it!

If we continually flush a word away because someone has temporarily run off with it as with a stolen car, then someone else will do the same with the next word we substitute, and the next, until we are no longer able to describe anything that, indeed, truly needs to be distinguished. When there is no politically-correct way to refer to a handicapped, disabled, differently-abled, retarded, crippled child, then what will we do? Pretend the child does not exist? When every American of aboriginal ancestry is re-labeled a native American, how will that distinguish them from 330 million other native Americans? (That assumes there is a need to continue making the distinction, of course.)

So, I’m taking my language back. The only people I hope to offend are those who want me to talk funny -- the sensitivity police. They need to pay attention to their own business. They can do more for disadvantaged people by lending a hand than by standing by and re-naming them.

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