The Root of “Handicrap”

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on July 18, 2022 # Lifestyle

I doubt that anyone knows the precise etymology of “handicrap,” but I know how I came to know the word. Its history — at least for me — goes all the way back to the 1960s. At that time, a historic incident gave rise to a similar, related use of an entirely different word that established an important precedent. To understand the precedent, it’s necessary to have some context: Most readers know the 60’s as a time of turmoil, revolutionary change, generational conflict, drugs, rock ‘n roll, etc. But politics actually ruled the decade — as they do now — and they played an important role in the incident I’m referring to, which occurred around midnight on July 19, 1969, and came to be known as simplifying, “Chappaquiddick.”

For those who don’t know, here’s the short version: Senator Ted Kennedy made a mistake that cost him the presidency. Both of his older brothers, Presidents John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, had been shockingly and tragically assassinated earlier in the decade, and many voters wanted Ted Kennedy to be their successor. But on that fateful night, he drove off a bridge on an out-of-the-way road on Chappaquiddick Island, and his car plunged into the waters around midnight. He survived, but his passenger, a 28-year-old woman named Mary Jo Kopechne, did not. The earliest news reports were sketchy, with none of the details clear. But when the official version of what happened eventually surfaced after much scrutiny, it became clear that the truth of what happened had been intentionally “covered up.” Kennedy was most likely inebriated, and when he left the scene of the accident, Kopechne was trapped in the vehicle. He did not report it to the police until 10 a.m. the next day.

When my wife and I met and moved to Oregon in 1974, in talking about the infamous Chappaquiddick incident, which had been run into the ground by an obsessive media focus, one day, my wife called the incident “Crappashittick” — which it clearly was.

At the same time, in the 1970s and 1980s, the endless search for handicapped parking spaces became a topic of obsession for those of us who drove or rode in cars. We became exasperated with the many loopholes and deficiencies of handicapped parking that resulted in prioritized parking for so many drivers with no need for it, and we tired of it in the same way we had tired of Crappashittick. That’s when the neverending search for handicapped parking spaces became — once again, in my wife’s words — “Handicrap Parking.”

Handicrap and Crappashittick share a common root — the idea that the truth is often misrepresented, misunderstood, and underappreciated. The public often holds one view of the truth of a situation, while wheelchair users — whose lives are affected in entirely different ways, have a a different view. For example, most nondisabled people think that handicrap parking is either a wonderful thing for the unfortunate cripples of the world, or they get annoyed whenever they see a prime unoccupied space with the familiar blue wheelchair figure and take it, regardless of the law. Or store owners stack their displays in the handicapped loading zone area. Just a few weeks ago, I was unable to park at a lawn and garden shop because they ran out of display space inside and crammed a dozen or more mowers and tillers in the loading area right next to the one handicapped parking space the store had. Not far from there was a tavern that commandeered no less than two side-by-side handicap parking space loading zones and converted the area into an outdoor serving area with tables, umbrellas, waitresses, and piped-in (or rather, piped-out), music.

This is just more handicrap, which by my count, has gone on for about 50 years now. And I’m beginning to wonder if it will ever change.

But there is hope: Not long ago, I received from the Reeve Foundation, for services rendered, a couple of “Superman” medallions and a black rubber wristband inscribed with the definition of “handicrap,” which I think finally nails the true underlying root cause of the word: “A limiting belief adopted as reality.”

Here is a current example of how the reality of our lives is misrepresented — the latest feel-good 1-minute TV news story about yet another courageous quad or para who is “walking again” with the help of an exoskeleton or other device that turns them into temporary robots. Viewers who feel this is more wonderful progress for our community are sadly mistaken. These “breakthroughs” are never widely available, usually not covered by non-veterans insurance, and highly impractical for everyday functioning. It is, sadly, more handicrap.

When we live in a culture that has little real understanding of what it means to be paralyzed, we will always be subject to uninformed and misinformed viewpoints about our lives. We must not give in to others’ assumptions that we are limited in what we know and can do. The key to throwing off all the handicrap that robs us of equal opportunity is to consistently and forcefully make known the truth of our hard-earned, unique reality.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website, All You Need.

This post is purely educational for our community readers. These opinions are that of the blogger.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.