Disability vs Handicap: The Difference from an Amputees Perspective

By Beth Hudson:

Since you have become part of this very elite club of amputees, I bet you have had a philosophical discussion with yourself and/or others about the meaning of the words “disabled” and “handicapped.” Although they are sometimes used interchangeably, they do have different meanings, and thus, can have different implications for us. You are more than well aware of this if you have had to justify your amputee-ism (if that’s not a real word, then I have decided to “make it so” [Picard]) for insurance purposes, Medicare or Medicaid, or SSI/SSDI.

After looking at many definitions of the two words, there are distinct connotations for both. If they were used correctly, every parking spot marked Handicap Parking would need to be changed to Disabled Parking, in my opinion.

According to Sheena L. Carter, Ph.D., a disability is “any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being.” There is a great deal to unpack here, thus the philosophical challenge. What constitutes an “impairment?” Are we not all, in some way or another, impaired? What is “normal” and how does a culture set the norms for what it deems as such? Our culture deems having all four appendages as “normal.” So for us, we are definitely disabled. We are physically different, differently-abled. We need to learn to do things differently than what our culture considers able-bodied.

Carter also states that a handicap is “a disadvantage for a given individual that limits or prevents the fulfillment of a role that is normal.” And there it is again! That pesky “normal” word! “Disadvantage”? “Limits?” What does a culture consider a disadvantage or a limit? Do we consider ourselves disadvantaged or limited because we do things in a different manner than the norm? To that, for myself, I say nay nay!

A while back someone told me that the word “handicap” springs from English soldiers after they returned home after WWI. There were no social services at the time; they were told to go out on the street, put their caps in their hands, and beg. “Hand-in-cap” became “handicapped.” I couldn’t find any etymology that suggested this story is the origin of the word, but it is, nonetheless, interesting. They were certainly limited and could no longer come even close to “normal,” so they were both disabled and handicapped.

And, of course, you need to prove that you are disabled as far as insurance and government assistance are concerned, from major medical bills to our prosthetic costs, to something as simple as an HC (?) parking tag.

Here’s my take. I am definitely disabled. I do not walk “normally,” I cannot run, nor can I get down on the ground, and I am on a transplant list. Even in the broadest sense of what our culture considers physically normal, I am not. I don’t consider myself handicapped, though. I don’t feel I am “disadvantaged,” and I have very few “limitations.” In my opinion, I am able to fulfill a role that is normal even though it is a different normal. I see the word “handicap” as more of a restriction that our culture imposes on us. A person who looks at me on the street may think that I can’t do much of anything. They may even feel sorry for me (don’t get me started on that subject!) because they don’t know me. The word “handicap” is imposed upon us by a culture that sees amputees as people who are limited. Well, just read some other posts here and you will know that is untrue! Am I disabled? Yes. Am I handicapped? No.

We are so lucky to live in a time where barriers are being shattered and the inclusion of disabled people is becoming…wait for it…normal! If it’s in your wheelhouse, I encourage you to support inclusion in your community and continue the cause. (Need help? Call the Amputation Coalition and speak with someone about their advocacy program.) I also invite you to think about these two words in your own situation and have a robust discussion with your family and friends.

Handicapped Parking, Disabled Parking, just the new universal sign? How we label things, including people, is human nature. Changing the cultural narrative is up to the people in that culture, including those who do and do not, for whatever reason, fit the definition of “normal.”
And remember, you never know how much strength you have until you are called upon to use it.