Magazine created by students of the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University.

Those blue parking signs with that H word

in Current Issue/Interviews

by Bryan Felber

 

“My worst enemy,” Lucy calls these signs that either use or evoke the word handicap.

 

Lucy Meyer speaking to officials at the US Ambassador’s Residence in Azerbaijan. PHOTO PROVIDED BY TeamLucyMeyer, USED WITH PERMISSION.

Lucy Meyer, the Spokesperson for the Special Olympics – UNICEF USA Partnership and a global advocate for people with disabilities, places great care in the language she uses, especially when describing people with disabilities. 

 

Living with physical and intellectual disabilities due to her cerebral palsy, Lucy at the age of 22 has won five gold medals in swimming in the Special Olympics and has travelled around the world to advocate for people with disabilities.

 

However, she still gets annoyed by these parking signs every time she goes out.

 

“Why do you hate them?” I ask her.

 

Lucy: “Because we’re not handicapped or disabled people, so we don’t need to use that language toward anyone.”

 

Bryan: “What kind of language do you use when referring to people with disabilities?”

 

Lucy: “Well, I do person first, not the disability. So, like, I’m a person with a disability, but not a disabled person. So, I think person before disability is probably one of the most important things ever. We’re not disabled, handicapped people. We’re just people who need extra help.”

 

People should not be defined by their disability. As a rule of thumb, always avoid using the –ed past participle, as in a disabled person. It suggests something final or irrevocable, limiting the person when in fact there are so many things that they can do. For example, Lucy can drive a motorboat, surf, swim, kayak, and boogie board, just to name a few. 

 

Lucy Meyer surrounded by a group of kids in a classroom in Montenegro. PHOTO PROVIDED BY TeamLucyMeyer, USED WITH PERMISSION.

It’s also good to be specific. My friend Lucy, who has cerebral palsy, is a very hard worker and a role model for children around the world. 

 

People with disabilities are a wide and varied class of people and sometimes don’t collectively identify among themselves. As of 2021, the World Bank estimates that up to 190 million people around the world are living with a significant disability.

 

So, why are people with disabilities, as the world’s largest minority group, still the most marginalized? Why do they still face the most discrimination at work, school, and in their communities?

 

To answer this, we need to look back at the centuries of interaction between disability and society.

 

As the Smithsonian National Museum of American History points out in its exhibit, Everybody: An Artifact History of Disability in America, disabilities were greatly stigmatized in colonial America. Having a disability was considered a curse from G-d or possession by an evil spirit. Individuals were hidden away and excluded from daily life. 

 

In the 19th century, philanthropists put people with disabilities in asylums, institutions, or special schools while ordinances, such as San Francisco’s later-dubbed “Ugly Law” of 1867, stipulated the following:

 

Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares or public places in the City of County of San Francisco, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view.

 

Handicap sign in Los Angeles. By Bryan Felber.

Society attempted to sweep under the rug people with disabilities but allowed their public appearance in so-called “freak shows.”

 

At the same time, people born with disabilities were considered by religious organizations as being tested by G-d to overcome their challenges through a life of patience and piety. But in the late 19th century, within the context of social Darwinism, a new term for people with disabilities began being used: handicapped.


Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares or public places in the City of County of San Francisco, shall not therein or thereon expose himself or herself to public view.


Originating in the Middle Ages to describe a game that evened out the odds in a trade between two people who each placed a “hand in a cap,” the word was later applied to horse racing where faster horses would be saddled with weights. Competitive golfers use it in the sense of a course or a player’s handicap, a numerical calculation designed to ensure fairness between players of varying abilities.

 

An accessible van labeled with the word “handicap”. By Bryan Felber.

So, in the context of social Darwinism, where survival of the fittest was applied to society, people with disabilities were seen as playing with a handicap. They were disadvantaged in a competition whose ground rules didn’t bother to include them. 

 

Calling someone handicapped is wrong because (other than comparing people to racehorses) it shifts the burden onto the person rather than the society. It makes it their problem and frees the society from having to deal with it. 

 

The term continued to be used in official language until the end of the 20th century as evidenced by the United States’ Architectural Barrier Act (ABA) of 1968 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973:

 

Sec. 504. No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, as defined in section 7 (6), shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

 

While this was a landmark piece of legislation that reframed disability as a civil rights issue rather than a medical need, it did use the word handicap 164 times. 

 

It wasn’t until 1992 with the addended Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that the term was replaced by “individual with a disability.”


Sec. 504. No otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States, as defined in section 7 (6), shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.


A storefront in Brno that utilizes the word “handicap”. By Bryan Felber.

Even though we’ve changed the language, the word is still firmly rooted in peoples’ minds. It’s even international. On a tram ride here in Brno recently, I noticed a storefront whose title featured the phrase, “Products for the Handicapped.” While driving, I saw a van labelled as “Handicap-Transport.” As many can confirm, the term is uttered almost automatically when referring to accessible parking spots.

 

Lucy has a lot to say about these parking spots. 

 

“They should have [larger spots in the front],” Lucy explains, “but they shouldn’t call it ‘Handicapped Parking.’ They should just call it ‘Parking for People who Need Extra Help.’ And then have a big sign saying, you know, where to park for people who need extra help, but not handicap placards. And unfortunately, I know exactly what those look like.”

 

An accessible parking sign in Brno. By Bryan Felber.

While the word handicap has been removed from many parking signs, the placards are still often referred to as handicap placards. 

 

Bryan: “What do you think about the placard? And what do you think about the picture of the person in the wheelchair?”

 

Lucy: “I don’t pay too much attention to the picture. I just don’t think people should have to use it in the first place. I think there should just be a way for people to get accessible parking and easier transportation without having to use a placard.”

 

It does seem wrong to require people with disabilities to carry a badge around that certifies a part of their identity. Defenders of the system, however, would argue that it prevents people from abusing the system. (Someone who undergoes knee surgery and walks on crutches temporarily should only have the pass when it’s necessary.)

 

But perhaps the placard does the opposite and instead enables people to abuse the system since now all that’s needed is a little blue sign and someone can park anywhere carte blanche. 

 

The true motivation for why people avoid these spots in the first place could benefit from research. I would suspect most people do it because it’s the right thing to do not because they could get a fine. No credentials are needed when someone occupies an accessible seat on a tram or a bus or enters an accessible bathroom stall.

 

But whether the placards are right and necessary, their application process could at least be modified for people with lifelong disabilities.

 

While permanent placards are free in all US states, they do require state-issued identification and a physician’s certification of a qualifying disability. Some states even require a first-time applicant to appear in person. In short, it’s a hassle.

 

On top of that, most states require periodic renewal. For people whose disability is permanent, having to periodically reapply is ridiculous.

 

Bryan: “…and the signs in the parking lot—” 

 

Lucy: “—are not cute. Definitely not cute.”

 

Bryan: [Laughs] “What would be cute? Or should there not be any signs?”

 

A priority seating sign in the Tube in London, the UK. By Bryan Felber.

Lucy: “Yeah, there should be signs. But for people that need help. Not for handicapped people. I mean, I know they’re necessary for people who actually need help. But I just wish there was a way to do it that didn’t have to have the logo and name handicapped or disabled or any of that stuff.”

 

As Lucy advocates, people with disabilities should be able to do whatever they want. They should have the same life experiences and the same opportunities to test themselves in the workplace as people without disabilities. Institutions and employers should focus not on people’s disabilities but instead their abilities, since everyone can do something. To facilitate this, we need vocational training and guidance within our school systems. 

 

However, too often, as Lucy has witnessed around the world, stigmatization prevents children with disabilities from enjoying equal opportunities in school. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, a 2013 survey found that more than 40% of parents would not want their children to attend school with a classmate who has a disability. In Kosovo, Lucy found that most Roma families don’t even let their children with disabilities outside of the house.

 

While the removal of physical barriers is fairly straightforward, erasing social barriers requires mass cooperation. The stigmatization of people with disabilities is perpetuated by their continued absence from the conversation. To reverse this trend, people with disabilities must be included in every facet of society. Or, as Lucy puts it, “Acceptance + Inclusion + Support = Progress.”

The Tree Top Walk exhibition in Janské Lázně, a completely accessible lookout tower. By Bryan Felber.

Bryan: “Do you think people should pity or feel sorry for people with disabilities?”

 

Lucy: “No, just treat them like anybody else. And help them when they need help, but don’t help them if they don’t need help because they are extremely, extremely independent people.”

 

If you would like to learn more about Lucy’s work, please visit www.TeamLucyMeyer.org (1)


Bryan Felber is a writer and filmmaker from Los Angeles and a BA student at Masaryk University Faculty of the Arts. He has a BFA in Film and TV Production from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and studied directing and cinematography at FAMU in Prague. His literary influences include Karel Čapek, Haruki Murakami, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Favorite directors are Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Stanley Kubrick. His passion is running marathons. He is a pace leader in the Pasadena Pacers and believes free running groups can help facilitate social and personal change.

Latest from Current Issue

Go to Top