Not long ago, I learned the term “adaptive athlete,” which describes an athlete with a physical or mental disability. Having previously encountered phrases like “disabled” or “Special Olympics,” I much prefer the connotations of this new term. Consider the alternatives:

  • Handicapped – There is some speculation that this word originates from the description of disabled and destitute veterans forced to take to the streets with caps in hand to beg for money. However, the word actually derives from the 17th century betting game “hand in cap,” in which one player claimed an article belonging to a second and offered something of supposedly equal value in exchange. A third player would act as an arbitrator and rule as to whether the items were of equal value. All three then deposited forfeit money in a cap, and the first two players displayed their agreement or disagreement with the arbitrator’s valuation by bringing out their hands either full or empty. If both players made the same decision, the arbitrator took the forfeit money; if not, the money went to the person who accepted the valuation. The term was later applied to horse racing, in which stronger horses received a handicap of added weight in order to equalize the field ( In either case, the term suggests something lost by way of a forfeiture or burden. The association with gambling also ignores the fact that individuals born with mental or physical setbacks did not voluntarily gamble on their abilities, and would be offensive to individuals disabled later in life, especially those injured through no fault of their own.
  • Disabled – This word literally describes what someone cannot do. Yet while a paraplegic may be unable to walk, she is capable of manipulating her wheelchair in ways most of us cannot.
  • Differently abled – This term has been suggested as a more politically correct variant of disabled. In addition to being an awkward mouthful, the term presupposes that there are normal humans and different humans, with “different” almost always adopting a negative connotation.
  • Special – Another attempt at political correctness, it seems “special” is now frequently uttered with sardonic air quotes and a knowing sneer. The intentions behind adopting this word appear noble, but it is often misappropriated as an insult in contemporary society.
Australian adaptive skier Rod Hacon (Australian Paralympic Committee)
In contrast, “adaptive” acknowledges the existence of a setback by recognizing that the individual faces a set of circumstances to which he must adapt. Yet it also focuses on what the individual can do rather than what he cannot. Furthermore, it relies far less on standards of “normal” and “different,” and addresses how a person performs functional tasks such as locomotion. People with two fully functional legs stand and walk, while adaptive individuals learn new skills to accomplish movement. To describe a person as adaptive is to recognize her necessary limitations and simultaneously admire her still considerable abilities.