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When is it appropriate to describe a person as an invalid versus handicap versus disabled? My friend broke his leg and could hardly do anything physical. I guess invalid would be the most appropriate because he was not born with, is temporary and is severely debilitating. For completeness sake is it ever acceptable or preferable to call someone a cripple or lame?

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    I would suggest that this type of terminology is possibly culture-dependent, and is certainly subject to 'political correctness'.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 11:47
  • This is entirely personal opinion (and therefore not an answer), but I would not describe someone with a broken leg as invalid, crippled, disabled, handicapped, or lame at all. I might say he is hampered by a broken leg, or that he has difficulties moving about because of it, but all the words you mention do not feel ‘right’ to me when speaking of a passing, clearly demarcated, physical injury that does not (normally) leave any permanent damage. Commented Aug 25, 2013 at 16:45
  • I would have recommended closing this question if only for lack of homework from the OP. Celeritas, check dictionaries and include what you found, analyse the differences and let us know what you think.
    – Kris
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 6:24
  • @Kris I didn't think it would help the discussion if I copied out the dictionary entry for each word.
    – Celeritas
    Commented Aug 27, 2013 at 7:03
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    I think this is a great question, because it is asking for nuance that is usually not spelled out in a dictionary.
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 12:42

3 Answers 3

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In US usage, all three terms have been applied historically to individuals who cope with illnesses or conditions, temporary or long-standing, that affect the manner in which they are often used to distinguish them from the bulk of the population in good health.

Historically, these terms have each been used as a label for an individual (or groups) who are perceived to have some condition, either physical, mental or emotional, that affect their activities of daily life. These terms are usually limited to conditions that the speaker considers to be a material impairment of ability.

This Google ngram shows the pattern of usage of the terms invalid, handicapped, disabled and disability.

Invalid is probably the oldest term for someone with physical conditions that are considered seriously limiting. It seems to be used primarily as a noun. in also has a heteronym (with emphasis on the second syllable) that is unrelated to this usage.

Handicapped appears to have come into usage around the late 19th century and has been used both as a noun and adjective. It also has many uses other than to describe individuals with certain conditions. The term had a significant increase in usage in the 1970s as legislation and other programs began to be implemented to improve access to work, transportation, education and other areas for individuals who needed some accommodations to utilize those services.

Disabled has a long usage as an adjective, but it has other meaning unrelated to human condition, such as disabling a machine or a function. It has been used as both an adjective to describe people with certain conditions as well as a noun to label those people.

Disability is a noun which also has a long history and meanings other than the condistions discussed above. It has recently become a more widely used term, often used in phrases such as a person with a disability rather than a disabled person. This discussion reviews the term and the range of conditions that may be covered.

The term invalid is not currently very widely used in the US (but its heteronym is). The terms handicapped and disabled as nouns have fallen into disfavor as descriptor of individuals who have certain conditions, largely because they tend to define the individual by the perceived limitation. Phrases such as people with disabilities, people with handicapping conditions, people with special needs and similar phrases are generally considered more acceptable.

The terms lame, crippled and cripple would generally be thought of as pejorative in most usage when applied to people in the US (but probably not to animals). Their level of usage is fairly low as shown here.

Your friend might be thought of as a short-term invalid, but the usage would not be very common. The use of lame might be used for a temporary injury. The term crippled would probably be considered impolite, but it is occasionally used especially for some conditions, especially as a verb

He has been progressively crippled by his advanced arthritis.

Using it as a noun or an adjective to describe the person who probably be frowned upon.

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I think handicap is a noun not adjective.

The best usage might depend on context I guess. Handicapped might sound a bit offensive in some circumstances.

(btw I am non native speaker)

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  • invalid: someone who is bedridden or too frail to leave home. That is they may not be handicaped or crippled but for whatever reason won't leave home. This is usually used for an older, sickly person. The word sounds a bit old fashioned/out of date and probably wouldn't be used any more. There are more modern words for it though I can't think of them. It doesn't sound pejorative to me but I would not use it, I'd rather tend to the more descriptive. It is pronounced with stress on the first syllable as opposed to the identically spelled word for 'false' or 'wrong' with stress on the second syllable.

  • handicapped: someone (in this context) who has a permanent marked reduction in ability. It usually refers to some one visibly different: wheelchair bound or blind. When used for mental problems like retardation, autism, or schizophrenia it is usually used as 'mentally handicapped'. As to whether it is current;y pejorative, it is the standard word for parking spaces closest to stores for people with difficulty walking, 'handicapped parking'. But to call someone handicapped might be going down the 'euphemism treadmill', that is currently newer words might be preferred. Again, a more specific descriptive term might be more desirable 'missing a leg', 'traumatic brain injury'. The word is also used metaphorically or any reduction in ability (and even in some sports like golf or horse racing for comparing players of different abilities.

  • crippled: this seems to me the more common word in the past for physically 'handicapped'. (it was only ever used metaphorically for mental handicaps). It is usually only used pejoratively now and so is not so common any more.

  • lame: though it's canonical meaning is 'has difficulty walking', its primary usage now means 'uncool', 'ineffectual', 'worthless'. It has moved so much so that to say 'He is lame' would be mean to say of someone with a broken leg. It hasn't gone so far as 'dumb' (whose canonical meaning is now 'stupid' instead of the older 'mute'). Also, 'lame' is more for a permanent condition.

So for your present circumstances:

  • someone with a broken leg is not 'lame', they just have a broken leg. A person who has had polio or a club foot might be considered 'lame' but still the specific medical condition is the preferred label, or 'they can't walk well because of ...'

  • 'cripple' and 'lame' are currently not preferred for people having difficulty walking. What you should say is that 'they have difficulty walking because ...'

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