Speaking of disability

Source: ACLU South Dakota

By William Camacaro (National Co-Coordinator)

One of the most offensive expressions used to talk about people with disabilities is the term “handicapped.” Author David Mikkelson describes the origin of the word:

“In 1504, after a brutal war in England, King Henry VII had an idea. King Henry knew that the war had left his country with a large number of disabled veterans. He proclaimed that begging in the streets is legal for people with disabilities. So into the streets, with their ‘cap in hand’, went King Henry’s disabled veterans, to beg for money.”

In other words, cap in hand refers to “beggars,” a term often used to describe people perceived to hold no value in society. Around the beginning of the 20th century the word “handicapped” became solely and exclusively used to describe people with physical and mental disabilities. 

While the term “handicapped” continues to lose validity, today we still see “handicapped” parking permits, “handicapped” toilets, “handicapped” dating sites, “handicapped” seats, “handicapped” apartments, “handicapped” hotels, “handicapped” vans – the list goes on. 

It’s important to use language that reflects the dignity and respect every human being is entitled to. There is a growing movement to rethink disability. As many now say, “we see true ability where others only see disability.” As my colleague James Jordan claims, the language is constantly changing. Nonetheless, the harsh realities people with disabilities experience in an exclusionary world remains the same.

The marginalization of people with disabilities in capitalist societies such as the U.S. is expressed in different ways at work: lower labor participation rates, very high unemployment rates, high temporary employment rates and low wages. Discrimination against people with disabilities remains a common practice: one can be denied a job simply because they require a more expensive medical service, because they need special physical equipment, or because they don’t have the technological aid necessary to do their job.

In the book Capitalism and Disability author Marta Russell paints the stark reality of people with disabilities. Disabled persons are nearly three times as likely to live below the current poverty line: 29% live in poverty, compared to 10% of non-disabled people. At least one third of adults with disabilities in the U.S. live in households with annual incomes of less than $15,000, according to a survey conducted in 2000 by the National Organization on Disability. Around 800 million disabled adults living in so-called “developing” countries under the subjugation of U.S.-dominated international financial institutions exist in abject poverty, with little employment opportunities and usually no social safety nets to fall back on.

Poverty can bring other elements of suffering such as depression, homelessness, loneliness and mental health issues. Capitalist society maintains a permanent war against people with disabilities that leads many to dead ends.

Based on my personal experience, I can testify that people with disabilities are among the most discriminated against in society. A disabled person can be discriminated against by people of all races, ethnicities, genders, nationalities, sexual orientations or other identity markers.

Years ago I won a prize from the Latin American Poetry Institute of New York. Some people asked me what I had done to win the award, as if it was impossible for someone like me to be recognized for my talents. There are people who ask me if I’ve ever had a girlfriend. I married a woman who worked as a doctor at a hospital in New York and we lived happily together for ten years. The questions inevitably arose. “How did you marry such a woman?” Some assumed that we’d gotten divorced because I could not function as a romantic partner.

The life of people with disabilities is a daily confrontation with society and its prejudices. We are people first, and we do the same things as everyone else. We have fun, we make friends, we fall in love, we embrace our strengths, we pursue our hopes and dreams and we contend with life’s hardships. We’re human beings like everyone else and we deserve to be treated as equals.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, February 24). Persons With a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics – 2021. BLS.gov. Retrieved September 27, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/disabl.pdf

National Organization on Disability (U.S.) & Harris Interactive (Firm). (2000). 2000 N.O.D. Harris Interactive.

Pappas, S. (2020, November 1). Despite the ADA, Equity is Still Out of Reach. APA.org. Retrieved September 27, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/11/feature-ada

Russell, M. (2019). Capitalism & Disability: Selected Writings by Marta Russell. (K. Rosenthal, Ed.). Haymarket Books.

Southern Adirondack Independent Living Center. (2018, April 1). So What’s Wrong With the Word “Handicapped”? Sailhelps.org. Retrieved September 27, 2022, from https://sailhelps.org/so-whats-wrong-with-the-word-handicapped/

World Health Organization. (2021, November 24). Disability and Health. WHO.int. Retrieved September 27, 2022, from https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health

This article is part of a series in AFGJ’s Human Rights in the U.S. 2022 Report