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LETTER: There’s an elephant in the school’s parking lots

I am sure you have heard of the expression “an elephant in the room?” Well, the other day I was walking with two children in the school’s parking lot when I came to an abrupt halt. Right in the middle of the school’s parking lot was an accessibility sign with the words “handicap parking!” Why was this shocking? I will explain.

Now, I am recently becoming educated to become a community support worker or educational assistant to help with those individuals with varying degrees of abilities that may differ from the status quo. And I have learned that the word “handicapped” comes from the term “cap in hand.” And that this was because in the year 1915 veterans were coming home with various limbs having been blown off and they could no longer support their families so King Henry the VII laid out some legislation allowing people with disabilities to beg for money with “cap in hand”. Hence the word handicap.

That was 100 years ago. Things have changed. People in wheelchairs can work, and they do. They just need accessible parking. Now, that you know the origin of this word and how it relates to people in varying degrees of abilities has it changed your view?  It changed mine. 

Let’s not forget that we are all potential candidates for a wheelchair. I saw this first hand when I looked after my quadriplegic father at the GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver. The random mishaps of a forever changed life. The lady who tripped on her cat answering the door and fell … she’s now a paraplegic. The 17-year-old playing rugby, his neck crushed, he is now quadriplegic. This could happen to anyone and it does, but do you want to be known as “handicapped?” (And yes, I know there are sport’s handicaps, and let’s keep it to sports it doesn’t seem to hurt feelings in that arena.)

So here’s the thing, I have two young four year olds that I’m teaching language too. And arguing over semantics may seem like petty stuff but not when it comes to the feelings of others and making everyone feel like they belong. So when they ask me why someone walks a different way, or talks a different way or has a missing arm, I don’t feel good about saying they are “handicapped” anymore. We need to find a more positive word, or at least explain how we are all different and that is ok because we are making things accessible to everyone. So let us put up a new word in the signs at the parking lots of schools where children learn the words, which will be ingrained with them for life. How about the word “accessibility?”

It is much easier to learn a new word, than to unlearn an old out-dated one.

Larissa Alexander (Grand Forks)