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War of the Words

Why designating a downtown street "Handicap Place" is not as simple as it seems.

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By Mike Ervin

Who could oppose an idea as noble as this one? Christa Donovan and Jack Holiday have been sending around a letter that begins, "In the great state of Illinois' endeavor to promote Handicap Awareness, we are proposing to change the name of a downtown Chicago street to 'Handicap Place.'"

The street they have in mind is Quincy--the 200 feet of it between State Street and the Dirksen Federal Building. "We must not rest until Illinois has Handicap Place," the letter insists. "Making people aware of the courage and opportunity of our disabled citizens is an important part of improving the quality of life for all our citizens."

Jesse Jackson Jr. signed on. So did Democratic senate leader Emil Jones, state representative Judy Erwin, and Alderman Burton Natarus. Natarus even went so far as to submit an ordinance July 8 that, if passed by the City Council, would have made "Handicap Place" that stretch of Quincy's honorary name. But there's one problem. To many of the disabled folk whom the street is supposed to honor, Handicap Place is as insultingly anachronistic as Negro Way or Colored People Circle.

Rene David Luna, director of programs for Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago, an advocacy center for people with disabilities (full disclosure: I write their newsletter), explains why "handicapped" has been out of favor for more than a decade. In the newly industrialized Europe, Luna says, people with disabilities who had to beg on the streets because they couldn't make a living as laborers were known as the handicapped. "It refers to the cap in hand. They would get a cigar box and put on a cap. When someone would come by they would hold out their cap and beg for change. Then they would put the change in the cigar box. 'Handicapped' conjures up images of pity, charity, and dependency."

Luna says, "A handicap is a barrier. That's why to me, a handicapped entrance is an oxymoron. A handicapped entrance should have stairs."

Josephine Holzer, executive director for the Council for Disability Rights in Chicago also received the letter. "It's really a shame that good intentions should go as off-the-wall as this has," she says. "The part that I find amusing is that it's a dead-end street."

Says Larry Gorski, head of the Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities, "The only thing worse would be if it was a one-way street going nowhere. The city of Chicago will never designate a street with that name."

Donovan says, "We're trying to promote handicap awareness." (Holiday's father is a disabled veteran.) OK, but why the "h" word?

The letter says, "The street's prospective name is complimentary of our forefathers' blueprinted word--Handicap--signifying Alert!" And Donovan explains that this is supposed to mean that "handicapped" is the word government entities use to refer to people with disabilities--as in "handicapped" parking and entrance signs. "If someone says that's the wrong word, then we'd better go around tearing down a lot of signs."

It's true that there are still plenty of those signs. In the basement of the County Building there's a brown elevator door with "Handicapped And Freight Only" painted on it in big white letters. But nearly every agency name or law that had the word "handicapped" in it has been updated. Gorski's office was once called the Mayor's Office for Senior Citizens and the Handicapped. The Americans With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, was never called the Handicapped Americans Act.

Does Donovan think the aforementioned objections to "handicap" are legitimate? "It's legitimate. It's also telling us no one has looked at the definition of those two words. 'Disabled' means they're not able to do anything no matter how hard they try or how much anyone helps. They are completely incapable. They have no rights. 'Handicapped' means they struggle. It takes longer to do it but they do it.'"

Luna replies, "There's no good word, that's for sure. Language doesn't capture our oppression."

Donovan and Holiday started sending out letters on June 1. Jackson wrote back on June 24 saying he "wholeheartedly" endorsed their effort "in recognition and honor of our disabled brothers and sisters." Jackson staffer Rick Bryant explains that the language of the letter shows that Jackson is "well aware" that "handicap" is antiquated. "But if that's what they want to call themselves, who are we to tell them they can't? If people in a small southern town want to name a street Colored Street, if that's how they identify themselves, who are we to quarrel?"

Erwin wrote Natarus urging his support. When I made the Negro Way analogy to Erwin's aide Suzanne Maso, she said, "I never thought about that. We were just trying to help out our constituents."

When I made the analogy to Natarus's aide Lucia Adams, she said, "Don't write your story yet!" She called back about an hour later to say Natarus had just amended his ordinance to call the street "Disability Place."

Donovan seemed perturbed by the amendment. Though she expressed a grudging willingness to consider a name change, she said she would be meeting with Natarus and would stick to the "Handicap Place" plan.

Luna thinks the best thing to do is to drop the whole idea. "Why do we even need a street named after us? Why don't we enforce laws instead?"

And besides, it's still a street that goes nowhere.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Eugene Zakusilo.

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