I was reading a document about disabilities recently, and came across a term that confused me:

Myth: People with disabilities are handicapped.

Fact: The terms "disabled" and "handicapped" are often used interchangeably. In fact, the latter term carries negative connotations, indicating that a disability prevents someone from being a full functioning member of society. A disability does not always present a handicap; rather it often means that a person with a disability may do something a little differently from a nonviable person, but with the same result and with equal participation.


The context seems to suggest that nonviable person is the opposite of person with a disability. While I'm familiar with the concept of viability, I've never heard the term nonviable person before. The intended meaning seems counterintuitive, and my Etymology Online/Ngram searches turned up nothing. Is this usage common, or perhaps a recently coined term with a known meaning in the context of disabilities?

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    Just a PS: Don't take that writers distinction between "disabled" and "handicapped" too seriously. This is a case of someone not liking the picture or ideas that a word brings to mind and so trying to convince people to use a different word, like "African-American" versus "black", or (in a very different sense) "illegal alien" versus "undocumented worker". He's making a social and political argument, not discussing accepted definitions of words. – Jay Sep 30 '11 at 15:04
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    OP's writer is someone with less-than-perfect language skills. Nonviable means incapable of surviving, so he's obviously used the wrong word. His distinction between the meanings of "disabled" and "handicapped" is also completely spurious, IMHO. The writer may have laudable things to say about how we should view disabled/handicapped people, but I think he has nothing useful to say about how we should use language. – FumbleFingers Sep 30 '11 at 17:19

In medical terms, ‘non-viable’ means ‘not capable of surviving’. It is certainly true that a person with a disability may do something a little differently from a such person, but I don’t think that’s what was intended. It seems to me simply that the writer has chosen the wrong word.

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    Yes. The sentence as written makes no sense. The main thing that a handicapped person would do differently from a nonviable person is to continue living. I think the original author had a slip of they keyboard. – Jay Sep 30 '11 at 15:00
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    The writer uses non-disabled elsewhere in the document, and this seems to me what could have been intended; I wouldn't be terribly surprised if spellchecking software managed to "helpfully" suggest nonviable for a typo or word it didn't recognize. – aedia λ Sep 30 '11 at 17:14
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    @aediaλ Your spellcheck idea actually makes a lot of sense. Good call. – ajk Sep 30 '11 at 17:50
  • Maybe the writer was thinking of "invalid", which is another negative word plus a word starting with "v", which is sometimes used with certain kinds of disability. – Andrew Grimm Jan 9 '13 at 8:20

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