Why Gimpy Law? Part II: Dissecting “Disability” (Dis + Ability)

What happens when we dissect the politically correct word, “disability?” The OED defines “disability” as (1) “A physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities” and (2) “A disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law.” (See OED “disability”). While the legal definition of “disability” (e.g., under the ADA and Social Security Act) is a discussion for another time, the OED definition still emphasizes the limitations and disadvantages of people with disabilities. Similarly, the OED’s definition of “disable” emphasizes limitations and decreased functionally: “(Of a disease, injury, or accident) [that] limit[s] (someone) in their movements, senses, or activities: it’s an injury that could disable somebody for life” with the synonym, “Put out of action.” (See OED “disable”). I don’t consider that my disability puts me “out of action” since I do what I want to do, but just differently. I realize that some may not see it the way I do, but that is ok. These definitions of “disability” are still problematic in today’s post disability rights society that seeks to emphasize people with disabilities’ abilities, rather than our limitations and disadvantages. However, as the Department of Labor’s May 2014 19.5% labor force participation statistic of people with disabilities (versus 68.7% labor force participation of people without disabilities) suggests a disconnect between what our society actually thinks and what it wants to believe that it thinks. (See DOL’s “Current Disability Employment Statistics”).

Dissecting “disability” further, the etymological background of “disability” comes from 1570s for “want of ability;” referring to dis- + ability. (See etymonline “disability”). According to the OED, the prefix “dis-“ can: express negation, denote reversal or absence of an action or state, denote removal of a specific thing, and/or express completeness or intensification of an unpleasant or unattractive action. (See OED “dis-“). When combined with the word, “ability,” which the OED defines as (1) “Possession of the means or skill to do something” and (2) “Talent, skill, or proficiency in a particular area,” “disability” essentially becomes the opposite of, or negates, ability. I object to this understanding of disability (dis+ability). My disability may make my means of walking challenging, and for some people with disabilities not possible, but that doesn’t mean that we are completely restricted from having mobility; as there are wheelchairs and mobility devices. Likewise, my disability does not limit my means of obtaining talent, skill, or proficiency in becoming an attorney, but other factors such as societal attitudes and physical access may make it more challenging. (I recognize that some people with disabilities cannot afford appropriate mobility devices or have accessible schools, especially in other countries that have less physical access and social acceptance, but that doesn’t help my argument. So let’s do what we do best as Americans and ignore this, if only for the sake of my argument, and also ignore the fact that the United States still has a long way to go to achieve complete physical access and social acceptance.)

Is the word “disability” better to use than politically incorrect words, like gimp? Probably. But is “disability” perfect? I don’t think so. Language is always changing. I anticipate that in the future there will be other terms and language to describe disability, since what’s appropriate today may be replaced with other language tomorrow. As someone integrating disability studies and theology pointed out, the person first language that I thought was politically correct, at least from my disability studies courses (which were ironically called rehabilitation courses, right around when the word, “rehabilitation,” fell out of favor with the disability community since it suggests that people with disabilities need to be fixed) a decade ago, is in controversy within the disability community. Some people with disabilities want to own their disability by putting the disability first, back to “disabled people” (which used to be politically incorrect), rather than the person first language, “people with disabilities.”

I am not advocating overthrowing the word, “disability;” it’s okay for now. As we evolve as a society and world, I anticipate that we will find better language to encapsulate our community and our uniqueness, instead of focusing on our limitations and disadvantages.


Why Gimpy Law? Part I: Politically Correct Disability Language

I don’t mean to offend people with “Gimpy Law,” although I imagine that some people may be offended. I do understand the politics and potential for self-empowerment with words. As a person with a disability myself, it is jarring to hear politically incorrect language used as if they were politically correct; it feels like nails on a chalkboard. As a former English major who wrote whole papers on a single word, I also understand the power of words and the value of etymologies. Etymology is the study of words, their origins, and the historical development of their meanings; not to be confused with entomology—the study of insects. Yes, I can be nerdy.

Let’s dissect the word, “handicap.” The Oxford English Dictionary (hereinafter “OED”) defines “handicap” as (1) “A circumstance that makes progress or success difficult” and (2) “A condition that markedly restricts a person’s ability to function physically, mentally, or socially,” which it notes as being out dated and offensive. (See OED  “handicap”). In one of the disability studies classes I took in undergrad, it was speculated that “handicap” derived from people with disabilities panhandling and putting a hand in a cap to do so, which is a negative connotation for people with disabilities.

I looked up the etymology online (because of course everything online is credible) and according to www.etymonline.com, “handicap” derived from a 1650’s game where two bettors would put their hands into a hat or cap with money and the neutral umpire announced the odds and the bettors would withdraw their hands (full hands meant they accepted and the bet was on, empty hands meant they did not accept the bet and forfeited the money). (See etymology of handicap). What a strange game! But a connection between this game and panhandling (with a hand in one’s cap to beg for money) might exist, although I am not sure how tenuous the connection is. Another etymological link is a 1754 reference to “horse racing…(Handy-Cap Match), where the umpire decreed the superior horse should carry extra weight as a ‘handicap;’ [leading to a] sense of ‘encumbrance, disability’ first recorded 1890. The [modern concept of a person with a] ‘disability’ [developed last in] early 20c.” (Id.).

To demonstrate politically correct language and that I know what I am talking about (although I don’t claim to know everything), here are flyers I created for an event promoting disability awareness and inclusion:

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I realize that “gimp” and “gimpy” should be included in the list of politically incorrect words. However, I have personal affection for the word “gimp,” as that is what my college friends with disabilities and I referred to each other as. Warning long tangent/illustration: After a few of us and our personal care assistants, who were also students, watched Pumpkin (2002), a movie starring Christina Ricci, playing a sorority girl romantically involved with a boy with physical and intellectual disabilities, who miraculously becomes “normal” after they have sex, for a disability studies class, we were all pissed. Roger Ebert’s thumbs up review of Pumpkin, in which he commands its brilliance in expanding our perceptions and for its use of “wicked blade…satire in order to show up the complacent political correctness of other movies…[refusing] to play it safe…” also upset us. I wonder if Ebert would have written a different review after he acquired head and neck cancer, becoming an ally to the disability community. We were all so pissed that I spearheaded a short documentary as our group project for the disability studies class. It documented the daily life of students with disabilities, including interviews with students and a professor. The documentary was called “A Day in the Life: A Gimpy Story.” However, realizing that our professor would find the word, “gimpy,” problematic, we left off the tagline. I see words like “gimp” analogous to the N word for the African American community; it’s ok for marginalized community members who have been oppressed by the word to use the word as a source of empowerment by reclaiming it, but it is not ok for people outside of that community to use it.

So why Gimpy Law, you ask? Perhaps all the politically correct disability domain/blog names were taken. Perhaps I have a sense of humor when it comes to my disability. Perhaps I am doing what the movie, Pumpkin, failed to do; refusing to play it safe/by the book in today’s complacently politically correct world. It’s probably a combination of all of the above. I invite you to join me in my journey, starting a disability law practice, which I will share in this blog. Feel free to post your feedback, hate mail, etc. below in the comment section. I also encourage you to take the below poll on the offensivity of Gimpy Law.