What's wrong with "handicapped"

    The Special Olympics at Evanston Township High School. Photo by Alicia Capetillo/North by Northwestern.

    On Sunday, May 3, I volunteered for the Special Olympics, an event sponsored by Northwestern University to Benefit Special Olympics (a student group). For three hours, I announced the winners for various events at Evanston Township High School.

    Every announcement I made started with, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the award ceremony for the…”

    And pretty much every announcement I made also included a mispronounced name. In the beginning, I just tried to pretend I knew what I was doing. I said the names confidently and often incorrectly.

    Then after I mispronounced the name of a third place finisher in the softball throw, she turned and looked at me. Then she calmly told me how to correctly pronounce her name, in a tone that made me realize that people mispronounce her name a lot, and she corrects them just as often. It was almost like she was talking down to me.

    That’s when I realized I’d been talking down to the participants. I’m ashamed to admit that I had subconsciously assumed that the Special Olympics participants were too dumb to care how I said their names. They’d just be happy with the fact that they got a medal or a ribbon, and the fact that everyone’s a winner at the Special Olympics.

    It sounds horrible, especially for a volunteer, but I really did it. Despite growing up in a household where it was okay to say “piss” but unacceptable to say “retard,” I didn’t think of the Special Olympics athletes as people. After 18 years of being mothered by a special ed teacher, I was still a horrible person.

    But as I thought about it more and more, I realized what handicapped was. It’s just a label. Most of the athletes at the Special Olympics could pronounce their own names better than I could, and I bet a lot of them can throw a softball farther than I can too.

    It’s really too bad that our society has put that label on certain people and not on others, because sometimes I act just as retarded or handicapped as someone who is eligible for the Special Olympics.

    I always knew that handicapped was a label in the conceptual sense, but until my experience at Evanston Township High School I didn’t understand the practical implications. Handicapped is a societal label, so it determines what society thinks an individual can accomplish. In order to see someone labeled handicapped as capable of more than what his or her label entails, you have to make a conscious effort. Otherwise you’ll fall into the same trap that I did. You’ll subconsciously assume that a handicapped person is only capable of what their label implies.

    And people restrict the handicapped based on their label all the time. Anthony Robles is a redshirt sophomore on the Arizona State University wrestling team. As a senior in high school, Robles won the biggest high school tournament in the country: Senior Nationals. Winning that tournament is usually good enough to earn a scholarship to a powerhouse wrestling school, but Robles ended up at ASU. The fact that he only has one leg has a lot to do with why University of Iowa’s Charlie Falck (who Robles beat this year at the NCAA tournament) ended up at the best wrestling school in the country and Robles chose ASU over Drexel University.

    It’s too bad that people with the handicapped label are always expected to accomplish less. I know Robles could kick my ass on a wrestling mat, and a lot of the athletes who were at Evanston Township High School on Sunday could probably outperform me too.

    So after about a half hour of getting corrected by people who I thought didn’t care, I realized at a practical level that handicapped was just a label. I started asking the participants how to say their names as they walked up to the podium. When someone couldn’t tell me how to say his or her name, there was usually a coach or parent who could. For the next three hours, I said most of the names right, and I announced every award like it was part of the 2012 Olympics in London, because that’s what the athletes deserved.

    In the truest sense of the word, Robles isn’t handicapped at all. He placed fourth in the NCAA this season. Don’t ever let that label determine what someone is capable of. I did this weekend. Robles hasn’t his whole life.


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