‘Handicap’ can’t slow me down

Editor’s note: This piece was previously published in 2010.

As I have touched on a couple times in previous scribblings, I am “handicapped.” The details about that are not really important to most people so I won’t bother with them. Suffice it to say that I face limitations in some areas, have to adapt the way I do some things, and that I am legally entitled to use those “special” parking spaces closest to the store entrances.

What does affect most of us, and should be important to all of us, is how “handicapped” people are perceived and labeled.

Over the years there have been a number of terms used to describe those of us who aren’t quite “normal” either physically or mentally. Some of these terms have tried to put a positive spin on the situation. Some are very negative in nature. A few can be a little derisive in some circumstances, and downright mean-spirited and nasty at times. A few of the more recent entries really stretch to put an affirmative light on things, but mostly they just leave you tongue-tied. “Handicapped,” “disabled,” “gimp,” “cripple,” “physically challenged,” “handicapable”and “differentially abled” are just a few samples of the name game.

The first two terms on that list are the ones that stir the most thought in me.

“Handicapped” derives its origins from the post Civil War era when veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies who had been left unable to obtain gainful employment due to their war wounds were forced to beg for whatever they could get. They frequently did this by holding their uniform hats out for donations. The sight of these men begging with “cap in hand” prompted someone to dub them “handicapped.”

In more recent times, the term has been applied to systems used in various sports as an equalizer so that participants of differing skill levels could still compete against one another. Bowling and golf both employ “handicap” systems and maintain records of an individual “handicap” so that even strangers can fairly contest their abilities.

Horse racing has its own “handicap” system designed to slow down the fastest of entries to provide for a more competitive race.

The word “disabled” has been around for a long time. The first definition listed in the dictionary for “disabled” is “inoperative”, in other words, it doesn’t work. I’m not sure just when or where “disabled” became an accepted term for those who fall into this group. I do know that the term got a huge boost when the “ADA”, the Americans with Disabilities Act, was signed into law in the early 1990s. I applaud and appreciate the law. However, I greatly question the use of the term “disabled.”

My personal feeling is that the letter “D” for “disabled” just makes for better acronyms when used to refer to the various groups and the laws designed to help them. “ADA” and “NYSID”, which stand for the New York State Industries for the Disabled, roll off the tongue better than the original title New York State Industries for the Handicapped’s acronym “NYSIH” or “AHA”.

As a lifelong sports fan and, whenever possible, participant, I prefer to be “handicapped” and in the competition rather than “disabled” and “inoperable.” I expressed my feelings in a poem that I wrote and sent to the governor when he signed the state’s version of the “ADA” and I would like to share them with you.

I love to play the game of golf,

But, my scores are not the best,

So I use the handicap system,

To compete with all the rest.

And, when mighty steeds circle the racing ovals,

‘Tis to the fleetest afoot go the wins,

But, if a horse wins too often or too easily,

He is handicapped ‘ere the next race begins.

He is made to carry extra weight,

To brake his flying feet,

So that lesser members of the field,

Have some chance to compete.

So in life, I am not Disabled,

I carry my Handicap with pride,

Knowing that God has had to slow me down,

To keep all the others from falling aside !!!

Bob Howard is a Forestville resident and previously served as an OBSERVER columnist.