Most people are generally nervous in a new social situation. One of these situations might be when you are meeting an individual with a disability or a handicap. Which term do you use? Perhaps we can help with that.
Disability defines a person who has had an accident or an illness, or some definable medical condition, that results in impairment to their mobility, senses, or mental capacity. A few examples could be paralysis and using a wheelchair due to a car crash, chemical spill that resulted in loss of sight, etc.
Handicap refers to the barrier or difficulty that slows or halts a person’s progress as they try to do something. Think of it as a person in a wheelchair approaching a set of steps. Being in the wheelchair isn’t the handicap, the stairs present the handicap, as wheels on stairs don’t generally work. Mobility accessories generally eliminate or reduce the effect of handicaps.
If unsure, default to disability, but the proper way is to think of the person first, not the disability. For instance it’s not the “deaf person,” but the “individual who is deaf.” First it’s insulting to acknowledge the disability before the individual (the person is still a human being), but also remember there are negative connotations to the words handicapped. As technology advances, certain handicaps are being eliminated, bring us all closer as individuals regardless of our mobility issues. We all view the cup holder as an accessory to drinking.
Lastly the term accessible is used to explain that everyone can use something. There is no in between, either something is accessible or not. The term refers to the federal regulations requiring businesses, buildings, etc. to allow anyone to use their facilities, and easily get into them.
In closing, if you’re unsure on the proper terminology either wait for the person to address their disability or (to avoid awkward situations) just ask them. Not everyone is the same, so what is offensive to one person might not be to another. Just like ethnicities don’t assume that one person facing a handicap or dealing with a disability speaks for others, we’re all individuals after all.