You might have heard that the word originated from disabled veterans in England during King Henry VII’s reign (15th-16th century). Unable to make a living for themselves after war, they were forced to take to the streets with their “cap in hand,” begging for coins. King Henry VII made it legal for disabled people to beg because he didn’t think they could hold down jobs. Disabled individuals, therefore, became known as “handicapped”…It turns out, though, that this is not true.
In contrast, “Cap in hand” actually refers to taking one’s hat off as a sign of respect, such as when listening to the national anthem or entering a building. This has been a custom since 1565, when people took their “caps in hand” to show subservience to certain individuals like judges. The phrase eventually took on the meaning “to humbly seek a favour.” It is still in use today, such as when referring to asking a boss for a raise, “cap in hand.
Now in the late nineteenth century, the term “affliction” began to disappear and people started using the term “handicapped.” “Handicapped” arose in the context of evolutionary theory, the world was being reinterpreted as a place of struggle, of competition, in the midst of industrial expansion and growing commercialism. It arose in the context of an economy that was fiercely competitive and where people were increasingly seen as competing individuals.
The term “handicapped” originally comes from a game called “Hand in Cap,” which is a game of chance in which every person would have an equal chance of winning in each succeeding game that you played. Later it was applied to horse racing. You would handicap a fast horse by hanging stones on it to slow it down. It began, then, in the late nineteenth century to be applied to people with disabilities, and it always occurred in the phrase, “handicapped in the race for life,” or “handicapped in the struggle for existence”. It was very much tied to the kind of competitive, social-evolutionist worldview that was obvious in the late nineteenth century. And that was the term that was used through much of the twentieth century until fairly recently, when the term “disability” began to replace it.
The interesting difference between “affliction” and “handicapped” is that “affliction” was not something you should overcome. While an “affliction” was a spiritual burden to be borne with faith and lived with as best as possible, in submission to God’s wisdom, a “handicap” was a condition to be conquered, an impediment to worldly success that had to be overcome. Thus twentieth-century success stories about disabled people are most often stories of “overcoming.”
‘Handicapped’ is a word which many disabled people consider to be the equivalent of ‘nigger’. It evokes thoughts of being held back, not in the race, not as good, weighed down by something so awful we ought not to speak of it.
However, “handicapped” is not universally offensive; while many disabled people do take offense, many others don’t care if it’s used, and some even prefer it. (Of course, “disabled” is seen by some as a negative word, too, with some people preferring “less abled.”)
There has also been some attempt to “take back” the word “cripple” and use it in a positive sense, such as with the talented comedian, and sufferer of Congenital Muscular Dystrophy, Ally Bruener and her “I laughed at the crippled girl” comedy act; her definition of “crippled” being: “Something so awesome, it’s debilitating. Opposite of ‘lame’.”
Inclusive communication and the proper use of specialist terms is important to me, especially as an upcoming journalist and Politician. It should also help to encourage mutual respect and self-respect. Furthermore, it will also continue to change our worldview on people with various exceptionalities and how we treat them.
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