Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Disability language is a nuanced thing

Disability language is a tricky thing. What can you say? What expression is the correct one? How do you avoid offending people? What expression should you be using? It’s tricky, and it keeps changing.

Button with hand written text Don't dis my ability.

The context

I remember an individual in charge of diversity and inclusion at a large company. This person, as far as I know, wasn’t disabled and had never been active in the disability rights movement. This person insisted people stop using the word “blind”. That a better expression should be “visually impaired”.

I appreciate that this person was well intentioned and doing their best. But… The effort was falling far off the mark.

A bit of history

I’ve been working in and around disability rights circles for over 25 years now. I’ve literally interacted with thousands of disabled folks. Early on disability rights activists taught me that “People first language” was critical. For example, using the expression “people with disabilities”, rather than “handicapped” or “disabled”. This all made a lot of sense.

There is a huge campaign by disability rights activists to use the word “disabled” now. Check out the #SayTheWord hashtag on Twitter. It’s a way to reclaim language, and by extension, culture, and individuality. For many of us, our disability has shaped who we are through lived experiences. Yes, it is a part of us. We are sons, mothers, spouses, professionals, etc. But disability is something that (typically) cannot be removed from us. Even if we wanted to, which we typically don’t.

All that time ago, there were many people who refused to adopt person first language. They were not “someone with a disability”. They perceived, and referred to, themselves as “disabled”. And today, there are still many people who prefer the term “person with a disability”.

On the Twitterverse

I ran an informal poll on Twitter to ask what was the best expression to use. 137 people responded. Of course Twitter polls are problematic, so there are caveats. I was surprised that the leading majority (117 people) just wanted to know the answer. There is a slight majority of people who prefer the term “blind” (10 people). And 8 people who prefer the expression “visually impaired”. It’s not clear cut one way or another. Depends on a lot of factors.

Some interesting long form answers:

Language changes

The point is, language is tricky. Language changes. The correct expression depends in large part on the individual you’re speaking with.

Circling back to the idea of using “visually impaired” instead of “blind”. In my experience, you can’t make sweeping statements like that. I know many people who perceive themselves as blind, not as visually impaired. I know other people who refer to themselves as visually impaired. It typically depends a lot on just how much usable vision they have.

An acquaintance of mine years ago said: “I’m not visually impaired. My vision can’t be impaired since I don’t have any. Heck, I don’t even have eyeballs!”

Léonie Watson points out:

There is no right or wrong answer to the question because it is a matter of personal choice, and the choice will often depend on context and circumstance.

Michael Ausbun pointed out that there are legal definitions to the terms:

There is the legal understanding of blind V. visually impaired. This legal understanding is not comparable from nation to nation, but in the United States technically, someone who is visually impaired has correctable vision. In contrast, legal blindness is defined as 20:200 or a restricted field beyond 20 degrees in one’s better eye. Relying on preciseness of language, visually impaired is simply not an accurate descriptor for most persons who identify as legally blind.

Michael also agreed that the term used by people depends on their level of usable vision and added:

It largely depends also on their personal philosophy and interaction with societal perceptions and attitudes. When I was working within vocational rehabilitation, consumers who had lower degrees of self-efficacy or low expectations for the potentiality of blind persons used “visually impaired”. Most times, the language used was unintentional—people told them they were visually impaired; the medical professionals assigned this label; other blindness professionals used this terminology while encouraging the use of residual vision over non-visual techniques.

Attitudes

Both Michael Ausbun and Nabib alude to attitudes towards disability. This idea of changing attitudes more than wording is important. For me the push of using a specific expression is problematic. It is a bigger problem when it comes from someone with no personal experience of disability. Or from someone who hasn’t worked in the disability rights movement. It is worse still when you combine those two factors. The good intention of being more inclusive doesn’t excuse you from informing yourself.

Nothing about us without us

It feels like a case of non-disabled folks telling the disabled folks what to think, and how to be. It reminds me of some less than stellar expressions such as “physically challenged”, “special needs”, or “handicapable”. All words or expressions intended to reduce the stigma of disability. All words that actually increased the very thing they wanted to reduce.

A disability rights activist once told me:

Are we tired of non-disabled people policing our language, yet?

Disability language is never straightforward. It’s always nuanced. It always evolves. You can’t make sweeping statements such as “you can’t use the word blind”.

A note for our abled allies: You cannot do it without us. Nothing about us without us. And that includes disability language, inclusion efforts, and so many other things. Your goal is to be inclusive? Don’t insist on using language that makes you feel better without talking to us about it first. Otherwise you have in fact excluded us.