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.

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Fearing The Pigeon-Hole: Or, The Trials Of Being A Disabled Writer

During a mock interview, the interviewer skimmed through some writing samples, noticing how many of them were directly related to disability. He then asked, without a trace of irony, whether I was “all about accessibility?” I didn’t have a coherent answer for him.
After mentioning blindness in a piece of creative writing, my classmates pressed for details, appearing to overlook the fact that the story wasn’t about being blind at all. I was writing about love, familial obligation, and social isolation, but all people seemed interested in, at least at the time, was the blindness angle.
Writing a blog about disability advocacy is hard, honest work, but many people believe it is the obvious choice for a blind writer. It is generally assumed that disabled people only ever write books, articles, and blogs about their disabilities, and all too often, this is proven true. Most of the blind writers I know focus, if not exclusively, then predominantly on their disability and how it colours the world around them. They may engage in all types of social advocacy, but disability tends to be at the forefront. They may have a varied work history, but much of it might involve working for advocacy organizations. We are, in short, pigeon-holed.
As I embarked on my modest little writing career, I began to fear the pigeon-hole. I wrote stories and articles that were completely devoid of disability-related themes, just so I could avoid being put into a neat little box. I explored every other facet of myself—Meagan as woman, Meagan as student, Meagan as writer and so on—but tried to write around blindness so I would seem more nuanced and less typical. I fought hard when classmates and instructors would press for more information on my disability, especially when I deemed it to be peripheral to the writing in question. I resisted when people suggested that my writing would only be unique if I included my disability, as though the rest of me was incurably boring without it. I became frustrated when I was told to “write like you do for your blog,” thinking this meant I was only of interest when writing about my broken eyes.
What I failed to understand, though, was that my disability-related writing was appealing simply because it was direct, confident, and convincing. I wrote with an authority I struggle to maintain when writing about other subjects less well-known to me. My straightforward and relatable approach on the blog was what made others want to see more of that style, not the blindness itself. People didn’t want more of my blindness, per se; they wanted more of me, period.
Nervous that I would inadvertently paint myself into a corner I would never emerge from again, I considered dropping my blog altogether, to weaken the associations between my writing and my blindness. Would having a blindness blog peg me as a one-trick pony right off the hop?
I asked myself what I’d write about instead. Contrary to the beliefs of many, I have wide-ranging interests, and could probably write several blogs if I had the time and energy. My bibliophile mind would have no difficulty conjuring endless posts about my reading life. Certainly my adventures with mental illness would provide ample fodder for a blog all on their own. I could easily write about music, popular culture, technology, and even philosophy, without breaking too much of a sweat. If I thought enough of my writing to believe people would actually enjoy them, I could cover a lot more ground.
It took some time, but I’ve come to realize that writing “Where’s your dog” does not have to pen me in as a writer unless I let it. Focusing on disability in one medium does not restrict me in others. Writers are, in theory, limited only by their time, energy, and ingenuity. I can submit to as many publications as I’d like. I can establish as many blogs as I please (though I think one is enough, for now anyway). I can explore the multi-faceted world I inhabit just as fully whether I have a blindness-related blog or not. And, if I fear that employers and the casual reader will dismiss me as that one-trick pony, why, all I can do is prove them wrong.
Further, if I do choose to write about my disability in relation to the wider world, that’s not shameful or lazy. If the everyday woman can write about being female, and the everyday lover can write about being in love, then surely I, the everyday blind person, can write about being blind without sacrificing self-respect. Surely disability, like any other minority trait, is enough to give me an interesting perspective on the world? After all, I greatly enjoy the perspectives of fellow disabled people. So, why shouldn’t my own writing about my blindness be truly meaningful?
Society is so often putting us in boxes, telling us our place, and shaping our narratives. In this case, though, the only one stuffing me into the pigeon-hole was me.