We, the Persons

It happens more often than you’d think. I’m scrolling through a piece of writing relating to policy or human rights, and I see it: “persons with disabilities.” It’s not something I find in much mainstream writing, but in the non-profit and government worlds, it’s ubiquitous. Though I’ve come to expect it, it always stands out to me in the most distracting way. It conjures other phrases, like “persons unknown” or “persons of interest.” It’s clinical and cold. It feels archaic and, especially outside the context of law, dehumanizing.

It seems like everyone else gets to hang out at what passes for the cool table, under the “people” umbrella. (Boy, that bar is high.) We don’t typically talk about persons of colour, or LGBTQ+ persons, or persons with low incomes. Governments don’t commit to supporting “working persons.” Politicians don’t address the “persons of this great country.” Democracy is not “by the persons, for the persons.” That would sound odd, if not incorrect. At best, it would be out of place, and give people pause.

I’m not usually a splitter of hairs when it comes to small linguistic details, unless I’m wearing my editor’s hat. I tend to think that while language has immense power, the sky isn’t likely to fall if someone refers to me as, say, “visually disabled” versus “visually impaired.” I may have a preference, but it’s a personal one, unlikely to inspire whole blog posts. You say tomato, I say “Who cares?”

There is something about “persons with disabilities” that continues to annoy, no matter how many times I come across it. Unearthing the phrase buried in legislation is one thing, but when I see it in a recent piece of writing, I can’t help but shake my head. Why haven’t we joined everyone else? Why have we yet to gain full “people” status? Why are we still being referenced, in a surprising number of documents, using a term that is jarring and isolating for no good reason? Are we destined always to remain in a medicalized category of our own, somewhere just to the south of “people?”

It really is a very minor detail, I know. Most people will look at “persons with disabilities” and not even notice the strangeness of it. Others will notice, and not care. I’m sure many people with disabilities (see what I did there?) will read this and shrug. There are bigger fish to fry, certainly–more important quibbles to discuss, definitely.

But my favourite thing about minor details is that they are so simple to fix. The complex issues are hard to solve, and I’m in no position to do much about any of them. What I can do is make sure “persons with disabilities” never creeps into my own writing. I can encourage my clients and coworkers to start thinking of us, and representing us, as a group of people much like every other. I can point out how bizarre it is to cling to such an outdated term, and hope that it will one day become a rare one.

If you’d like to see “persons” with disabilities become a relic of a society that really did view disabled people as less-than, instead of a phrase we cling to with bewildering obstinacy, you might consider joining me in this modest quest. I’d be more than happy to hear about your progress, pushback and all.


The Word Is Blind

“So, you’re blind—I’m sorry! I mean…visually impaired—I mean…uh…I’m not sure of the…terminology…”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life (and, yes, most of them were nice). Many of the labels people have placed on me because of my eyes are diplomatic but straightforward: visually impaired, low-vision, visually handicapped, physically handicapped, disabled, etc. These are all accurate, so I have no objection to them (though low-vision perpetuates the misconception that I see far better than I actually can). Of course, I’ve also been called—and heard others being called—more “politically sensitive” terms: differently abled (really?), differently seeing (uh, no…), special (gag me with a spoon, please), and handicapable (I wish I was kidding).

We are currently surrounded by an environment that demands political correctness and unbiased language. Normally, I’m one of the most enthusiastic supporters of bias-free language, because I understand the power of the words we use. Even when we aren’t conscious of it, the words we choose to use carry plenty of potential impact. Language really does matter. In that light, I understand and support society’s efforts to attach meaningful, accurate labels to minorities, particularly labels free of derogatory associations. If I were conducting a business meeting and someone referred to me as a “blink”, I’d be rather offended: that’s not how you treat someone, especially in a professional setting, unless you know them well and have an intimate knowledge of their personal preferences. I would no more call a disabled stranger by a derogatory name—lighthearted as I may feel at the time—than I’d call my lesbian best friend a dyke. Personally, I don’t consider it a polite (or even wise) endeavor, no matter how good my intentions are.

But, as always, there’s another side to this coin. There is such a thing as tiptoeing to such a degree as to invite ridicule, and it is my opinion that some of the terms listed above are just begging to be mocked. I mean, come on—“handicapable”? That sounds like a bad joke, not a “politically sensitive” label to use in official settings. It sounds, in fact, like someone’s terrible idea of a catchy hashtag. Please, leave that condescending nonsense on Twitter where it belongs. Other terms, while being less deserving of derision, commit the grave sin of being totally inaccurate and misleading. Take “differently seeing”, for example: I don’t “see” differently than other human beings. True, I tend to use my other senses more often than sighted people, but as I’ve previously explained, those senses are exactly the same as yours. They’re not heightened or supercharged in any way; I simply know how to use them, and have little choice but to rely on them. Seeing differently would necessitate extra organs (or perhaps extra brain function) and I can assure you that I definitely don’t have any mutated eyes or visual cortices lurking around. I’d tell you if I did—imagine the money I could make from the media buzz alone! (And, no, I am not giving you permission to come and investigate for yourself.) It’s also worth mentioning that I despise platitudes like “you can see with your heart”. I understand the kindness behind such pronouncements, I really do, but we all know it’s gooey, sentimental rhetoric, right?

In general, I believe in calling a spade a spade. Dancing around the simple facts with labels meant to encourage respect and sensitivity does more to annoy me than set me at ease. It’s impossible to keep up with the terminology that is en vogue on any given week. For the longest time, it was my impression that “visually impaired” was considered the acceptable term for official documents and workplace discourse, as determined by the CNIB. When I was working for them a couple of years ago, however, I quickly discovered that I was doing it wrong: the new term was “partially sighted”. Visually impaired, it seemed, was sooo last year. Who knew? I certainly didn’t…

I’m not sure what it is about blindness in particular that makes people so timid, but I’d love to relieve them all of that heavy burden. It’s okay to admit that someone is disabled—yes, disabled, not “differently abled”. Some people have stuff wrong with them, and that’s not a horrible thing. It’s not a sin to openly admit that someone else isn’t a perfect specimen of efficiency. Flaws don’t have to be scary, and disability doesn’t have to be taboo. Set aside your worries about sensitivity and correctness for a moment, and listen: my eyes don’t work. I cannot see. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that I am blind. Not “differently abled”, or “differently seeing”…just “blind”. If you want to get really technical, you can use “visually impaired” for people who have enough vision to read large print and use screen magnification. Otherwise, “blind” is perfectly acceptable, at least to me and the majority of blind people I know. If “blind” scares you, go with “visually impaired”; you’re very unlikely to upset anyone that way. I have met a very few people who were especially sensitive about semantics, but even they were all just fine with “visually impaired”.

It really irks me when people treat “blind” like a curse word—as though the last thing anyone would ever want to admit to being is blind. Believe it or not, I’m rather okay with the fact that my eyes don’t work, and thus I am okay with being called blind. It’s what I am. I’m no more uncomfortable with being referred to as “blind” than I am with being referred to as “female”, or “brunette”, or “human”. These are all natural parts of my being and while I’m not necessarily proud of my disability, I’m at peace with the fact that it exists and that there’s a word for it. So, rather than wasting your valuable time stumbling over the “correct” terminology, just call me “blind”, because that’s what I am. It’s not insulting, or insensitive, or ablest; it’s honest.

Of course, my favourite thing to be called is “Meagan”. I have a name, so please use it. If you know my name, there is no reason whatsoever to refer to me as “the blind girl”, or “the disabled girl”, or anything similar. Names are given for a reason; please do me the courtesy of using mine. After all, more than “blind”, I self-identify as “human”, just like you.

Author’s note: If you are reading this from somewhere other than Earth and do not, therefore, self-identify as human, please forgive the generalization. I wouldn’t want to use improper labeling!