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Last Updated: Monday, 4 October, 2004, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
Don't call me handicapped!
By Damon Rose
Editor of BBC disability website Ouch!

Ouch! editor Damon Rose
The sensitivity of words describing black and gay people is well known, but how should disabled people be referred to? Is handicapped an offensive description?

The abundance of coverage last week about new rights for disabled people shed some welcome light on a subject that is often overlooked by mainstream media.

But it also raised a thorny question: what words are suitable when talking about disabled people?

The BBC's disability website, Ouch!, regularly get calls about language from people frightened about "getting it wrong".

Due to popular rubbishing of what is referred to as "political correctness', many disabled commentators now publicly say they don't care how people refer to them.

But privately they fume if someone calls them "handicapped" or "brave".

Last year Ouch! ran a poll to try and determine what really are the most vilified words and expressions around disability.

Unsurprisingly "retard" came top as the most offensive followed by "spastic".

1. Retard
2. Spastic
3. Window-licker
4. Mong
5. Special
6. Brave
7. Cripple
8. Psycho
9. Handicapped
10. Wheelchair-bound

When breaking down the figures though, it was interesting to see that disabled people had voted "special" as fifth most offensive.

"Special service", "special school" and "special needs" are phrases used in an attempt to be positive about disability.

But in the same way women don't like being elevated to "lady", disabled people find it patronising to be lifted to the status of special.

It differentiates them from normal, but in a saccharine manner. Disabled people are different, but not better or more important. Besides, putting them on a pedestal does not appear to be shifting attitudes or solving the appalling disability unemployment situation.

Clearly, language in this field is a hotch-potch of confusion.


There's an idea that the correct terminology is "people with disabilities". It's quite cute because it's born of a belief that we're people first.

British paralympic basketball players
"Handicapped" and "invalid" imply disabled people are held back
But speak to a disability studies student or rights campaigner and you're likely to be told this is a thoroughly incorrect use of language, due to a concept known as "the social model of disability".

They will tell you the correct term is "disabled people". Why? Because the word disabled and disability refer to how society treats them, not their impairment, which is a medical matter.

Disabled refers to what barriers have been placed in their way due to the physical environment: steps instead of ramps, no Braille menus in restaurants etc. It also refers to attitudes which perpetuate joblessness or non-inclusion.

Linguistically the disability movement is trying to separate its personal medical situation from society's responsibility to all disabled people.

It is about identifying as one who believes in having rights as opposed to someone who believes their poor quality of life is because they are not "perfect" human specimens.

Of other words used to describe disabled people, "invalid" gives the message of being not valid or worthless.

Many warm words are spun about the furthering of disabled people - usually through a fear of getting sued - but positive action is often lacking

"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.

Some would accuse disabled people of being over-sensitive, but language shapes thoughts. Russians have two entirely different words for light blue and dark blue and so tend to think of them as two totally separate colours. English speakers however see the two as shades of the same thing.

Ultimately though, attitude is more important than words.

The simple task of giving disability a name proves such a headache for some organisations they simply do nothing about "the disability problem".

Glib and perhaps overly-simple it might be, but the phrase "actions speak louder than words" is really relevant here.

Many warm words are spun about the furthering of disabled people - usually through a fear of getting sued - but positive action is often lacking.

This is a selection of your comments:

I've been using a manual wheelchair my entire life as I have spina bifida. But honestly I couldn't give a damn what people use to talk about people in wheelchairs. Disabled, handicapped, whatever it doesn't matter. We are disabled, we do have handicaps, stop making such an issue about it. Yes life might be harder but quibbling over language isn't really that important is it?
Douglas Graham, UK

Surely if the word isn't supposed to be seen as offensive and is meant in the best intentions what is the problem? It's too difficult to keep up with changes in language for all minority groups so just let it go!
Ed, UK

I cannot believe that SCOPE had only changed their name from the Spastic Society ten years ago when the offence of the word goes back a lot further than that. It may not be a swear word, but it is just as offensive as one.
George Handley, UK

I used to help at a handicapped sports club, this issue was raised and a number of people joined in the debate around the bar. In the end there was a majority in favour of handicapped over disabled as being the best description. The logic was thus. If a ship is disabled it is helpless, open to the elements and at significant risk. A golfer has a handicap. They have a handicap so that with a little help, they can take on anyone in the world.
David Slack, England

I'm confused. This article spends a lot of time saying what we shouldn't call er... disabled people (sorry for any offence) but doesn't actually mention any words which are considered acceptable! If a person isn't allowed a disability, can't have special requirements, isn't handicapped and certainly isn't special then in those situations where it is necessary/useful, what words can we use??
Bev, UK

I was very surprised to see just how offensive some disabled people find the term "handicapped". My son has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and is too young to have an opinion as yet, but I personally would not object to the h-word.
Penny Hawkins, UK

There is no such thing as inately offensive or inately correct. There are just people who either want to take offence or want to be the authority on the subject.
Nick Sedgwick, UK



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