Everyone Is Handicapped

Some are too short for the NBA. Some are too tall to be jockeys. Most simply don’t have the acumen needed to be a nuclear physicist.

Yet someone of ‘normal’ intelligence is never referred to as being ‘handicapped’ merely because he or she can’t make the grade as a rocket scientist. Remember that the next time you hear someone utter the H word.

You’re handicapped in some way even if you’ve never thought of yourself as being disabled. Hang the ‘H’ word on yourself, see how it fits. Try to imagine how it feels to be pigeon-holed by that nasty little epithet.

It’s a good bet you won’t like the feeling.

People who live with disabilities are not defined by their disabilities – other people define them that way. Those with disabilities are not victims of their impairments to sight or mobility any more than so-called able-bodied people are victims of their physical or mental limitations.

The ‘H’ word didn’t always carry a stigma. It began innocently enough, and a slew of casual phrases leaked into our lexicon. Jack is “confined to a wheelchair.” Jane “suffers from MS.”

There are ‘handicapped parking places.’ American society can get warm and fuzzy congratulating itself with ‘handicapped accessible.’

But the nation has so far to go to fulfill the promises it has made; it’s safe to say any congratulations would be premature.

To be fair, this all began with good intentions, or at least intentions that were not mean-spirited. Changes in language are mostly subtle and even in the absence of dark motives there can be unintended consequences, and words can hurt.

So, as time has gone on the ‘H’ word and the phrases that accompanied it became code for second-class citizenship. No one planned it; it wasn’t someone’s Machiavellian agenda.

Perhaps the ‘H’ word began as simple semantics. Now, though, the word carries very real ramifications. Someone with the ‘H’ word tends to be ‘one of them,’ not ‘one of us.’

The truth is, we’re all in this together.

In 2010, according to the U.S. Census, 56.7 million Americans had some sort of disability. That’s about 19 percent of the population.

The report, ‘Americans with Disabilities 2010,’ found that “41 percent of those age 21 to 64 with any disability were employed, compared with 79 percent of those with no disability. Along with the lower likelihood of having a job came the higher likelihood of experiencing persistent poverty over a 24-month period.” People In that 21-to-64 age group, the report said, “had median monthly earnings of $1,961 compared with $2,724 for those with no disability.”

So it’s about more than just curb cuts to accommodate wheelchairs. It’s about many remaining beached when the so-called economic high tide comes along to lift all boats.

Consider: 56.7 million souls. That’s a lot of H’s. It could lead to an impossible, never-ending labeling job.

Luckily, there is an alternative: a universal acceptance of the truth that in some fashion everyone is ‘handicapped.’

Once it is understood that everyone is handicapped and the label means nothing, it may be easier to grasp the notion that 56.7 million citizens are not “them,” they’re “us.

This is far more than paying homage to political correctness. Whether we are talking about something that might be called subjective, insensitive language or something as tangible as a curb cut, America has a social contract that is implicit in some ways but expressly written into its laws in others

The nation hasn’t been walking its talk.

America started down the right road with the Americans with Disabilities Act almost 25 years ago. Most people are vaguely aware we lost the momentum that created the ground-breaking law.

It’s not about left-vs.-right politics, either. Today, regardless of its political leanings, no American city of any appreciable size is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Thousands of military members have been coming back from recent wars. They’re called “Wounded Warriors,” yet a grateful nation doesn’t seem grateful enough, and another subset of second-class citizens appears to be in the making.

Don’t call them handicapped unless you’re ready to hang the ‘H’ on yourself.

It’s time we started living up to the standards we set for ourselves.

Maybe the first step is to attack the ‘H’ word.

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