“Don’t talk about yourself that way!”
“You shouldn’t devalue yourself!”
“You should always use person-first language. Do not put your disability before your personhood.”
I remember the first time I encountered the language police, and experienced the odd sensation of having my own words criticized and found unsuitable. It’s one thing to be careful when addressing other disabled people and the community as a whole; words are powerful and should be used with care. Even so, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to being told that the words I use to describe myself are objectively wrong.
If you are at all familiar with the disability community, you’ve probably seen an article or three about the importance of person-first language: “person with disability” supposedly places the person before the disability, preventing people from letting disability define them in any way. (The policing of individual identities has long puzzled me. What is the deal with that?)
I’m perfectly willing to address and describe others in the way they prefer. Respecting individual preferences is a practice I value very highly. Autonomy is a luxury we are so often denied. Far be it from me to take it away from someone else, especially if their voice is not as loud as my own.
However, when it comes to my own identity and disability, I consider my words and preferences to be above everyone else’s. I do not say this out of arrogance or dismissal of the beliefs of others. My ears are always open, and the way I define myself has shifted with time and experience. That said, if I want to call myself visually impaired instead of partially sighted, disabled instead of differently abled, or normal instead of special, that is my prerogative. I do not feel that anyone has the right to dictate how I ought to view myself, particularly not on my own blog. (Besides, I find “person with a disability” clunky, especially when it comes up multiple times. It’s just quicker and easier to say “disabled.”)
For the most part, this misplaced desire to correct and police my language comes from misguided, well-intentioned able people, who do not understand that just because that one blind guy they know doesn’t mind being called special doesn’t mean they’re at liberty to assume everyone feels that way. I’m constantly running into the frustrating notion that disabled people’s wishes are not as important as nondisabled people’s. I am angered and dismayed by the idea that they know better than we do, and it seems that even those with minimal knowledge of the community are willing to tell us we’re wrong.
Surprisingly, though, some of this policing comes from fellow disabled people, who seem to think that I am somehow harming or degrading myself by using terms they deem offensive. Offence is ultimately an individual experience, and I do not believe anyone can seriously expect to know what should offend me and what should not.
I personally find euphemisms like “differently abled” and “handicapable” repugnant. I see them as proof that society still wishes to tiptoe around disability, remaining unable to fully accept and make peace with its existence. Branding me special or differently abled takes away from the fact that my condition is basically just a hardware failure. No, it does not have to define me, and no, it does not consume my whole life, but yes, it’s a meaningful part of me—one I’ve learned to live with in relative contentment. There is no need to gloss it over or refer to it using roundabout language designed to make able people feel better about it.
Please do not police my language when I describe myself. Please do not presume to know how I should treat my own identity. Please do not shame me for the way I choose to look at myself and my place in the wider world. By all means, let me know your perspective on the best terms to use in general, but do not take it upon yourself to set me straight when I’m talking about myself. When it comes to my blindness, and mine alone, I know best.
a very well written post here Meagan! I always identify myself as totally blind but I sometimes say I’m legally blind. however the definition of legally blind still evades me and probably still will continue to. I do identify as visually impaired at times too and I still hear people using terms such as “handicapped” and a lot of those are elderly people or it’s said in media news as in intellectually handicap was used in a local news story here a few weeks ago and I still feel that people need to stop using the word handicap to describe disability but I say this to my mother and she will tell me if people use the word handicap let them don’t try and change their way of speaking as they are often so set in their ways. I always tell people I’m just like anybody else except my eyes don’t work but if there’s any definition of normal I’d love to know as I don’t think there is ever such a thing as normality nothing’s ever normal and nothing and nobody is ever perfect these are my thoughts and if you’re not happy with some of them feel free to tell me and constructively if you will lol.
I’ve just found your blog and I appreciate what I read, thank you!
I agree that person-first language seems kind of clunky and bloated. Besides, why do I have to go around reminding people that I’m a person when I talk. It’s like walking up to somebody and asking, “OK, this time for $50,000 and a new car, in 20 seconds name five people you know who are not people, and go!” Also, I don’t need reminding by others that I’m a person, I know I am, even if others see me more as object than person, that’s their problem and not mine.