Handicapped versus Disabled

The other night, my husband and I attended a dinner hosted by Inglis House, a non-profit organization that provides long-term residential care to adults with physical disabilities. My husband serves on the board and he’d invited me to join him for the Annual Board dinner. Inglis House is an amazing organization that promotes living life to the fullest. Lauren DeBruicker, the Chairman of the Board and partner at Duane Morris, gave a speech that both moved me and made me think. Lauren is smart, inspiring, uber-competent and a lovely human being. To learn more about Lauren, check out this article.

Lauren spoke about the distinction between the words disabled and handicapped. While those of us who are able-bodied may not immediately understand the difference, to illuminate the point Lauren, a wheelchair user herself explained: I cannot walk up steps. That is a disability. But whether or not the disability is a handicap is relative to my environment.

Lauren painted a picture for the audience. After she first sustained her injury, she explained, living in her parent’s home, a two-story colonial, made her disability a handicap. By not being able to walk up steps, she did not have access to her bedroom or the bathroom. But when she moved to an accessible dorm in college, her disability was not a handicap. There were accessible entryways and bathrooms and there was an elevator to take her up steps. When Lauren didn’t need to expend energy worrying over how she’d navigate steps, she could focus on other aspects of her life.

Extrapolating from her experience to that of the resident at Inglis House Lauren shared the goal of Inglis House: “to give people the resources to define their own lives.” By providing accessibility such that the physical disability is not a handicap, an individual is free to pursue other dimensions of his life — to paint, to become a webmaster, to learn photography.

Lauren’s words encouraged me to think of other labels that define people: poor, unemployed, immigrant, learning disabled. By assisting people living below the poverty line with housing costs or providing a living wage, they can then make decisions for their lives that aren’t governed by whether to pay rent or buy the baby antibiotics.

By providing language instruction and support for acclimation, new immigrants can make choices that aren’t based on limited communication skills or a lack of understanding as to how things work in this giant country of ours.

By offering specialized learning instruction, a child who learns differently can be free to explore his passions and interests rather than worrying over whether he completed the homework assignment accurately or if he’ll have enough time to complete an exam.

By providing specific, targeted resources, people can define themselves in new ways. A person may always possess those other labels, but those labels no longer need to be the primary definitions by which they know themselves or are known to others. imgres

The ways that we define ourselves create pathways to what we become and even without any of the above labels, we can still manage to handicap ourselves. We place ourselves in situations that we know will undermine our self-esteem or we take on too many obligations and fail to manage all of them. Perhaps we strive toward an unrealistic goal and feel disappointed when we can’t achieve it.

For some people, these internal handicaps can feel as limiting as those steps are to a wheelchair user. But if the handicaps are, as Lauren shows us, dependent on the environment, what resources might help to eliminate them? What new pathways can you create that will allow you to strive toward your potential?

While surfing the web on redefining what’s possible, I learned about this guy. Get ready to have your mind blown.

(artistotle quote from idlehearts.com)

9 responses to “Handicapped versus Disabled

  1. Oh wow! So excellent. Love this post!!! This is so true: “The ways that we define ourselves create pathways to what we become and even without any of the above labels, we can still manage to handicap ourselves. We place ourselves in situations that we know will undermine our self-esteem or we take on too many obligations and fail to manage all of them. Perhaps we strive toward an unrealistic goal and feel disappointed when we can’t achieve it.” Great distinction between handicapped and disabled!!!!

    • Linda, I’m glad that what moved me could resonate with you. I’m inspired by those around me who face obstacles that appear so much larger than any I’ve faced. Most of us will never climb Kilimanjaro, but we can work toward eliminating our own handicaps.

  2. What a great post and an important message to share. I still remember when my psychology teacher my senior year in high school explained to us the word origin of handicap (a term derived from “hand in cap” to refer to beggars) and explained to us how misleading and damaging that term is. How we view others and how we view ourselves have a huge impact on how we deal with challenges and what we become in life.

    • Kathryn, Lauren, the speaker I referenced in the piece, mentioned that same origin of “handicap.” You know, I wouldn’t refer to someone as handicapped and yet I still refer to those parking spaces as “handicapped parking” or the bathrooms as “handicapped accessible.” It will take time to replace those in my vocabulary and awareness is the first step.

  3. So true, Laura. As a person with a disability, Asperger’s syndrome, I have been in situations where I haven’t gotten support and ultimately, I was held responsible for my failure. And, yes, I felt “handicapped” by my problematic interpersonal and social communication skills. Part of effective self-advocacy is knowing what kinds of situations are going to lead to failure without accommodation, and making sure the supports are in place beforehand. An employer knowing about the disability isn’t enough if that employer isn’t also ready to do its part to help an employee with special needs achieve success. At the same time, people with Asperger’s are often naive when it comes to dealing with others and have a hard time recognizing duplicitous attitudes and behavior. This is where a coach, interpreter, or advocate is a good idea.

    • Lyn, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. This part feels especially important as I try to help my son navigate the college search process: “Part of effective self-advocacy is knowing what kinds of situations are going to lead to failure without accommodation, and making sure the supports are in place beforehand.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s