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Words and Disability - The Delicate Balance

by Jonathan Mosen

“It’s only words”, sang the Bee Gees in the early 70s before their voices got squeaky. But words as they are used around disability issues are a contentious minefield.

While it’s important for a disabled person not to feel insulted or undervalued by the use of words, we need to pick our battles carefully, and give some thought to the consequences of making people so nervous about using the wrong term regarding disability that communication may be stifled. Only if communication is open and straightforward can we hope to overcome misconceptions that hold us back.

One counterproductive linguistic contortion is the use of “person-first” language.

Some years ago, the New Zealand Government published a discussion document on its Disability Strategy. In that document, they referred to “people experiencing disability”. The response to this convoluted emasculation of the English language was a resounding “bah” from the majority of those actually being described. As a result, New Zealand Government policy, by request of the majority of those living with disability on a daily basis, is to refer to “disabled People”. Thank goodness for that.

Yet every so often, I still come across professionals who insist on referring to “people who are blind”, “people with vision impairments”, or even “people experiencing blindness”.

There are many adjectives that might be used to describe us. I’m a white guy. I’m a short person. I’m also a blind man. Saying that I’m a blind person no more defines me in totality than saying I’m a white man. It’s just one adjective that might be used to describe me.

Why does this matter? It matters because when you go through unnatural-sounding linguistic hoops to describe one particular characteristic, it draws more attention to it than it would were you to use more regular construction. My partner is a beautiful woman. Sometimes, I remember to tell her that. If I were to describe her, either to her directly or someone else, as a woman experiencing beauty, everyone would think that a rather peculiar turn of phrase, or should that be a turn of phrase with peculiarity?

There is a widely held myth among the general public who don’t often encounter blind people, that “blind” is somehow an inappropriate word to use. Part of that is because of all the “person-first” language that was so in vogue a few years ago, and that stragglers still cling to.

People genuinely curious about the needs, capabilities and opinions of blind people, should be able to ask honest and thoughtful questions without being hung up on the language.

During “the person-first” madness, it was claimed that using “person-first” language would remind people that we’re people first, our disability is second. All it did was to make us seem too sensitive, and intimidate people who became fearful of offending by using the wrong words in the wrong order.

I am not, however, suggesting that words never matter or can’t be offensive. Not long after writing my previous post here regarding the absence of disabled people from the media, I was browsing the Stuff website when I read the headline “Customers Angered by the blind leading the blind”. This was one of those cases where I believed it was appropriate to call someone out on their word choice.

It’s important because, while a very common expression, it denigrates an entire group of people and reinforces inaccurate stereotypes about the degree to which one is capable when blind. Survey after survey finds that employers believe that if they employed a blind person, their blind employee would be at higher risk of accidents in the workplace than sighted employees. In fact the reality is the opposite, but it’s a hard perception to shake. Certainly, expressions like “the blind leading the blind” are no help.

In fact, when the blind do really lead the blind, the results are just as profound as Maori leading Maori. It's another case of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination). It's something to be celebrated. Blind people live with blindness daily. We’re in the best position to determine how resources raised in our name are appropriated.

I appreciate that "the blind leading the blind" is a term with a lengthy history. It's found in the Bible, in Matthew 15/14. But the notion that "we've always said it, so what are you on about", is no defence. There are other biblical teachings that are no longer considered by the vast majority of people as appropriate in 2014, including attitudes to women and gays and the stoning of adulterers.

Similarly, there were expressions in common usage even when I was a child that have thankfully been banished to the dustbin of offensiveness. During my childhood, it was common for adults to use the expression "a Maori day off", reinforcing the stereotype that all Maori were lazy. I'm delighted to reflect that no one would dream of putting that in a headline now.

It’s an ongoing battle. It wasn’t that long ago that Paul Henry was widely taken to task over his disgusting use of the term "retarded". There are terms that are no longer appropriate to use as we embrace people with disabilities in mainstream society, and I would submit that "blind leading the blind" is one such term.

I wrote these thoughts, in quite some details, and sent them off as a letter of complaint to the Dominion Post. I nearly didn’t. I’ve had cause to raise issues of language with other media outlets before, and have never had acknowledgement of the media’s need to be considerate about the language they use regarding disability. To my great surprise, I got a reply acknowledging my points, an undertaking to change the headline, and a commitment that headline writers would be spoken to regarding the phrase. I really couldn’t have asked for a more satisfactory response. This only goes to show that, while advocacy can often feel like banging one’s head against a brick wall, you just never know when the wall is going to budge a little.

So how do I reconcile my contempt for “person-first” language with my disdain for terms like “the blind leading the blind”. I think it comes down to this. “person-first” language trips people up, and is unlikely to change attitudes. Phrases that depict disabled people as incompetent, no matter how common their usage, can actually make a significant, albeit subconscious, difference to the way we’re perceived. Those perceptions translate into job opportunities and inclusion. That’s why words sometimes do matter, very much.

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