‘Most of Them Can Be Helped’: Building a Language of Disability

These cerebral palsy radio spots, recorded in 1951 for the United Cerebral Palsy Fund, highlight the ideas and words applied to children born with disabilities.

A slew of celebrities talk about “pity,” “shame,” and “handicaps” -- but also of “living with dignity” and proactive therapies.  Surprisingly, many spots draw listeners in with pleas about feeling helpless about the war and injured soldiers; “there are people you can help…” Bob Hope offers, “children born with cerebral palsy.”

Decades later, Americans are still struggling for appropriate words to describe disability.  2012 brought the celebration of the London Olympics, and later, of the Paralympics.  In coverage of the Paralympics, several news outlets focused on the words used to describe athletes, with some parties advocating to drop the term “disabled” from media coverage. 

But while much of the language of these service announcements from 1951 may shock listeners with unsubtle references to “twisted little limbs,” our current language may be far from medically accurate or culturally appropriate.  Radio especially provides a preserved moment of language and tone, and one can only assume the UCPF had the best of intentions, as do advocates today.  Cognitive scientists sometimes use the term euphemism treadmill to describe this phenomenon of pejoration -- one offensive term being discarded for a new word which eventually causes the same offense.

Individuals with disabilities are a large, if not the largest, minority group in America.  Along with medical and social advances, ideally the rhetoric of disability will keep evolving. 


Audio courtesy NYC Municipal Archives.