I seem to be in a learning mode today, so I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned.
I’ve always hated the word “handicapped.” In the back of my mind, I’ve always retained the notion that it has something to do with begging. Wikipedia admits that used to be what people believed the origin of the word to be.
I never knew that the true etymology was from an old English trading game called “hand-in-cap.” Not only does it have nothing to do with begging, it is actually based on the equal value of two items being traded.
In this game, two players want to trade possessions. An umpire decides whether the items have the same value, and if not, what the difference is. Both players and the umpire then put some forfeit money in a cap. The players put their hands in the cap, and then remove them either open, to signal agreement with the valuation, or closed, to signal disagreement. If both players agree, the difference in valuation is paid, the items are traded, and the umpire collects the forfeit. If both players disagree, the items are not traded, and the umpire collects the forfeit. If one player agrees and the other does not, the items are not traded, and the player who agreed to the valuation collects the forfeit.
It’s actually about a neutral person evening up the odds for a person carrying a heavier burden than normal. That’s not what I would have expected. A word that I always thought was about inequality was about the effort to make two things equal.
Before people were described as handicapped, though, the term commonly used was “crippled.” This always reminds me of Klara in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. They called her “crippled” and an “invalid.” I always knew I couldn’t be like Klara because I wasn’t confined to my home or bed. The word “invalid” when it’s pronounced differently (emphasis on the second syllable) is connected to a property of a logical argument. This gives the word the implication of canceling the person with a disability out.
Language is a tricky thing. Words have multiple meanings and associations. Words are one of our only means to communicate concepts that defy description, so we must be aware of how we use them. I wish there was a true language of disability so that we can more easily be understood. Maybe that’s why creativity is so important.