The question may be too opinion based and highly contentious.

However, as a non native speaker with a serious disability, I have great trouble grasping why “disabled“ is supposed to be much better than “handicapped“. When I hear “handicapped“ I think of someone on the gym taking a position that makes the exercise harder and ideally still pulling it off (incidentally, this is what I think my disability does; it makes my life a hell of a lot harder, but in the end I still prevail).

When I hear “disabled“ I think of a machine completely switched off or an opponent immobilised (this is what I never want my disability to achieve: to make me feel utterly powerless).

Is it just a random effect of history that made “handicapped“ so much worse (because people have simply had more time abusing the word) or can it be understood from the connotations of the two words outside medicine?

Sources that attest to the preferability of “disabled“ are quite easy to find, but they don’t explain why this preference came about. Examples: 1.

Another, which states that the connotation is opposite from what I expect, but not why: 2.

Here we have a comparison of the two including a summary table, but again “disabled“ would strike me as the much more negative, except for the disputed hand-in-cap etymology, which I understand could make the term undesirable: 3

Here, “handicap“ is connected to “Hand in Cap“ through a game of chance unrelated to begging: 4

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist May 9 at 2:08

According to linguist John McWhorter the answer is indeed history. Older terms accumulate baggage and are replaced by new terms in what is called the Euphemism Treadmill:

Crippled began as a sympathetic term. However, a sad reality of human society is that there are negative associations and even dismissal harboured against those with disabilities. Thus crippled became accreted with those overtones, so to speak, to the point that handicapped was fashioned as a replacement term free from such baggage.

However, because humans stayed human, it was impossible that handicapped would not, over time, become accreted with similar gunk. Enter disabled, which is now long-lived enough that many process it, too, as harbouring shades of abuse, which conditions a replacement such as differently abled.
Euphemise this: McWhorter on The Euphemism Treadmill

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    Differently abled is now also non-PC: Differently-abled Background: This term came into vogue in the 1990s as an alternative to “disabled,” “handicapped” or “mentally retarded.” Currently, it is not considered appropriate (and for many, never was). Some consider it condescending, offensive." - ncdj.org/style-guide – Greybeard Apr 25 at 20:48
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    "Differently-abled" is generally discouraged by disabled communities/charities etc., as being overly patronising and generally more insulting than the term it tries to replace. They also generally prefer "disabled people" over "people with disabilities" (I say "generally" because I'm sure there are always exceptions). – Muzer Apr 26 at 9:58
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    My sister, a primary school teacher, reported proudly that her class referred to someone mentally disabled as "special", as she had taught them. Which was ridiculous; when those children said "special" they meant "mentally disabled", they still had the same picture in their minds. I presume those kids readjusted their vocabulary when in contact with the real world. Now they might say "special needs"... but see above. – RedSonja Apr 26 at 11:27
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    Wow! I have been looking for exactly this general term -- esp. having witnessed a few cycles with terms for what are now actually called intellectual disabilities -- as also noted in the article. Thanks immensely for this! – Daniel R. Collins Apr 26 at 18:56
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    Link to a NY Times article by Pinker himself (1994): nytimes.com/1994/04/05/opinion/the-game-of-the-name.html – Daniel R. Collins Apr 26 at 19:05

The two terms most commonly used to describe a person who has a limitation are "handicapped" and "disabled."

A disability is the result of a medically definable condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.

A handicap is a barrier or circumstance that makes progress or success difficult, such as an impassable flight of stairs or a negative attitude toward a person who has a disability.

  • A practical example: Janet Zeller, who has quadriplegia (some level of paralysis in all four limbs), has been told that she doesn't look "handicapped" when she is out paddling her sea kayak. Think about the situation. When Janet is paddling her sea kayak she is part of a sleek craft gliding through the water. There are no barriers to stop her or to "handicap" her. But she still has a disability.

The correct term is "disability"—a person with a disability. Person-first terminology is used because the person is more important than his or her disability.


  • Regarding the final note about person-first terminology, note that the same shift in language has also occurred in other contexts - "coloured person" is no longer considered acceptable (and hasn't been acceptable for quite some time), but "person of colour" is currently preferred. To a lesser extent, people are more likely to say "man with red hair" than "red-haired man" (although that's more of a matter of taste). – Glen O Apr 27 at 0:31
  • This is peripheral to the OP's question, but: many many disabled people prefer identity-first language over person-first. I see this particularly among autistic and D/deaf people, where IFL seems to be a solid majority preference (though not universal). This isn't a discussion suited to a SO comment, but googling "person-first versus identity-first language" will pull up a lot of commentary on why many of us prefer the latter. – Geoffrey Brent Apr 27 at 7:12
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    This is a one sided view from a particular brand of social justice advocates. Many, if not most, people consider saying "person of <x>" to be as idiotic as saying "car of red". It's butchering of the English language for the sake of virtue signaling. – Davor Apr 27 at 7:40
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    @Davor: It seems to me that this argument deliberately concocts a non-idiomatic comparison ("car of red") to make the phrase seem absurd, overlooking the many perfectly good English phrases with the same construction. Person of interest. Man of Steel. People of Earth. International Man of Mystery. Person of the Year. Man of wealth and taste. – Tim Pederick Apr 27 at 12:45
  • @TimPederick - person of disability is equally non-idiomatic. – Davor Apr 28 at 15:29

In Italian, "handicappato" has also been replaced with "disabile", the former was used as an insult to challenge someone's intelligence or behaviour. When I was a child living in the UK, the term handicapped was practically synonymous with "cretin" "stupid" "imbecile" "spastic" and "idiot" four of which, funnily enough, were terms that were originally used in the medical field.

Calling someone handicapped when they have no physical or mental disability is clearly a misuse, and calling someone handicapped even if they are paraplegic, hearing impaired or have learning difficulties is also rude. So, why have medical conditions been used as insults? Because people the world over are generally unhappy cruel creatures, and name calling requires no analysis, forethought and, ironically, no intelligence.

  • Evidently, „handicapped“ has been replaced long or thoroughly enough for me not to pick up these connotations abroad. Thanks – Ludi Apr 27 at 12:49
  • Calling someone who has a handicap "handicapped" is rude? (I'm handicapped; have been all my life.) – RonJohn Apr 28 at 16:44
  • @RonJohn Unfortunately, the term has acquired such derogatory overtones, I would not feel comfortable saying it in public about someone I don't personally know. – Mari-Lou A Apr 28 at 18:08
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    @Mari-LouA that's silly. (Of course, it's not the only silly change in how we address people in the last 30 years.) – RonJohn Apr 28 at 18:28

The term "handicapped" is stronger than the term "disabled."

Both refer to a lack of ability, but while disabled means

not having one or more of the physical or mental abilities that most people have:

handicapped means

Having a condition that markedly restricts one's ability to function physically, mentally, or socially.

A disability may affect a person's life not at all, depending on what that person chooses to do, but it will arise to the level of handicap only if it does affect the life.

Consequently some people prefer the term "disabled" because it is less severe.

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    This could be a great part of the reason, though it seems to run directly counter to logic. Thanks. – Ludi Apr 25 at 20:04
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    While the quoted definition of disabled does not explicitly say that the disability has to 'markedly restricts one's ability to function', the word is usually used only when that is the case: one is not normally described as disabled if one lacks some entirely trivial capacity. Moreover, even if the two definitions were taken at face value, they would only show that there is a difference in degree between the two; they do not explain why one term would be regarded as more respectful than the other. – jsw29 Apr 25 at 22:04
  • I have in fact seen people referred to as disabled in many situations where they were not handicapped. – Mary Apr 25 at 23:44
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    Hmmm.. suppose I say "it took me longer to set up the tent since I had a handicap (showing my small flashlight)". Is that a marked restriction? I feel like handicap means any sort of disadvantage. – Owen Reynolds Apr 26 at 4:55
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    Your claim doesn't seem to follow from the definitions you give. Surely if one of the "abilities that most people have" is impaired but not actually absent, then the second definition applies but the first does not. – Especially Lime Apr 26 at 11:58

Such things are almost always down to contemporary ideas of political correctness, and very little more.

Beneath that, “disabled“ always includes “handicapped” but not the other way around.

Most people won't care, yet a disability is a condition, the cause of which is not relevant. Strictly, a handicap might be exactly the same condition, but the cause should be relevant.

Consider the other main use of "handicap", in racing. There, very clearly, an official "handicapper" reduces a horse's ability to carry a lighter jockey.

Such things are almost always down to contemporary ideas of political correctness, but at least the contrast between disability and handicap has some logic about it.

Without wishing to be harsh, consider instead the difference between the term "Mongoloid" which was common usage until the middle of the last century, and the modern "Downs' syndrome".

Crudely, "Mongoloid" was a partially accurate description of the physical characteristics of a condition. By contrast "Downs' syndrome" is not only meaningless without prior knowledge; it's not even grammatical. "A Mongoloid child" has both meaning and grammatical correctness; "a Downs' syndrome child" clearly lacks both.

  • Good points. But would you compare „disabled“ to „down“? Because I would have thought „disabled“ has meaning: immobilised, neutralised, powerless, turned off,... At the same time, the other answers have shown me the baggage that „handicapped“ has accrued. – Ludi Apr 29 at 6:53
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    @Ludi Not at all. Comparing "disabled" to "Downs" is too much like chalk and cheese." I was comparing "disabled" to "handicapped" as in the OQ, and "Downs" to "Mongoloid" Both "disabled" and "handicapped" mean immobilised, neutralised, powerless, turned off, the difference being how each came to mean that. At the same time, both have accrued far too much baggage. If you're looking at pure language, this is only about historical political preference. If you're interest is in, say, wheel-chair users or people with special learning needs, why not consult a dedicated organisation? – Robbie Goodwin Apr 30 at 23:51

All PC status words are bound to change with time or generational outlook and of course the temperament of the descriptive sub-culture that is being described. In a perfect world we would all be people, person or human, but too many people feel the need to prioritize or discriminate the people person or human that they are referring to based on their own perception or upbringing, which in part complicates an already complicated language such as English.

By society assigning a positive and negative value to these descriptive praises or descriptive words we actually loose out on the chance to get a better understanding of how someone views you as an individual, because we say that certain words are no longer politically correct and thus telling everyone what IS THE CORRECT phrase to use it casts confusion and actually only benefits the true bigot by making it known what he must say and what words to use to hide his real feelings about a person or class of people.

As a person, I feel that I should be described as exactly that as much as possible if it becomes necessary to identify me further I would be identified further if needed as a male or female; short, tall or average; dirty, clean, neat or slovenly, or whatever chosen descriptive word that the person feels needed to identify me as a different individual from the ten, twenty or two other people that may be around me or the person may know or be around based on the facts needed. I do not always need to be identified as a single white male with a disability, in fact most of the time I would prefer to just be called SCOTT. (TY for the edit I got lost trying to convey my thought and forgot other grammatical errors.)

  • We humans love to have everything labelled - hence that's what we do. But there are times when we need to generalise a bit. Imagine how big the parking notice would be if it had peoples' names (including Scott) so a couple of words do instead. In fact, a sign with a picture is even more effective! Although in U.K. it seems the able-bodied often think it means it's their parking place! Not so in France - very rare to see such spaces occupied incorrectly. And people would show their disapproval if they were. Maybe that's why. – Tim Apr 27 at 11:44
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    @Tim I have always assumed that people like this, no obvious physically disability and no handicapped license plate or placard, thus unlikely to have any actual underlying non-obvious disability are simply mentally challenged. I have a similar theory on people who wear their masks below their nose, they are obviously mouth-breathers, so its ok. – Glen Yates Apr 28 at 19:52

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