Definitely not handicapped!
If you had ever told me that IT would be necessary to write this in 2016, I would basically have laughed you out of the room.
But, as with everything, one must always prepare to be wrong even and especially when you are prepared to give a country like Barbados the benefit of the doubt as it relates to the treatment of persons with disabilities.
I opened the most recent edition of the Sunday Sun to see that that bastion of Barbadian journalism had chosen to print a notice that referred to me and thousands of other Barbadians as “handicapped.”
In case there is any confusion, here is a primer on why that term should have never happened.
There is some contention about the true origins of the term but it is largely recognized that it was popularized when veterans of war of 1504 were forced to sit on the road side and beg cap in hand because of the inability to support themselves due to injuries sustained in war.
Wherever “handicapped” came from, disability advocates have frowned upon its use because of its unsavoury connotation. It connotes a profound lack of capacity, one that includes overdependence on individuals and the state apparatus and lack of both resources and ability.
Opposition to the term was first articulated in the 1970’s at the beginning of the modern global disability rights movement. “Handicapped” was replaced with the term “disability”. It was felt that “handicapped” was not reflective of the diverse, talented and intelligent beings who make up the community of persons with disabilities.
As journalist and disability scholar Jack A. Nelson wrote, though handicapped appeared to be “in keeping with the disability rights movement’s analysis of the situation—that the individual is okay but society has put him or her at a disadvantage—the term was nonetheless rejected when disabled people began wresting the power of the programmes that controlled their lives from social workers and began to run their own programmes . . . if for no other reason than it was a term imposed on them by agencies.”
It is important to note that in the late 1990s to early 2000’s, Barbados launched a campaign which included a national event and TV and radio spots which referred to individuals with disabilities as “differently abled”. This was considered by some in the international rights arena who had already settled on term “disability”, as problematic but was supposed to mark progress for the island.
“Persons with Disabilities”
Persons with disabilities have come to accept this most recent term to refer to the community. This language is reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to which Barbados is signatory.
The term has its origins in legislation out of the United States in the mid 1990’s. It is important to note that there are still contentions about the use of terminology within the community but there are not many supporters of the term “handicapped”.
We have had these moments of progress in terminology and rhetoric before across several communities. For example, we no longer refer to people as AIDS victims or sufferers but as people living with HIV/AIDS. Similar progress has been made on race, immigration status and sexual orientation.
These moments of progress were born out of a recognition by the global community that some of the old terminology perpetuated stigma that made the lives of people more difficult.
Consequently, it was necessary to be kinder and gentler and, in many ways, more accurate in our descriptions. This progress across various communities was due in large measure to the activism and advocacy of various underserved communities and their allies.
The role of the media
The media have a role to play in making progress and shaping ideas and perceptions. The Nation newspaper fell far short of that responsibility in this instance. Its use of the term “handicapped” is hurtful to me and many. Words mean things. Referring to someone or a community of people as “handicapped” is derogatory and perpetuates ideas about incompetence and a lack of capacity that are demeaning and inaccurate.
Persons with disabilities already suffer from intolerance by the society at large. They would wish that media houses reflect our better angels in terms of their treatment to issues that affect the diverse, intelligent, capable, witty human beings who are part of the community.