Disability Language: Is There Power In Names?

I recently read an interesting article about language on the Be My Eyes blog (opens in a new tab), which got me thinking about writing my own blog post on the topic. The first thing that really stood out to me in this article was the acknowledgement of person first language. I completely agree that person first language is best when referring to disabilities in a general sense. I know it is a subtle difference in a literary sense, but hearing the word “disabled” always makes my hair stand on end as if there was a sudden, brief chill in the air; however the word “disability” does not bother me in the least, when used in an appropriate, non-judgmental context. In contrast though, I would rather be called “blind” than a “person who is blind”. The second phrase just sounds like more of a struggle coming out of people’s mouths, like they are thinking too hard about my disability and how to be “politically correct”. I don’t want people spending their time and effort trying to say the current PC phrase of the day. That kind of conscious effort to not be offensive just makes conversations awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

On the opposite side of the same coin, it is my opinion that society should have an officially recognized terminology that everyone learns, and that is what is used. No more dancing around the social Ferris wheel of correct words. And enough of this business of getting extremely offended by every little slip of the tongue—I am saying this to myself as well. I mean, in other social and economic groups such as race, children grow up knowing what is and is not acceptable language. Why can’t we as a blind community do this as well. It would mean deciding on an agreed vocabulary and then disseminating that lexicon to everybody–those with and without disabilities, then intentionally not changing the established vocabulary, no matter what direction the political and literal wind is blowing.

Obviously, I have a couple of opinions on this subject which I feel have been preached to the choir. So, to answer the question posed by Aaron, while I like the sound of access technology better, I don’t think it is worth confusing the rest of the world over. Assistive Technology is not a bad phrase. Sure, it does have the natural implication of providing technology that assists us, but there’s nothing wrong with naming something exactly what it is; because when you get right down to the meaning of the words access vs assist, they have essentially the same meaning, only with slightly different tones. That’s all I think the difference is between the two, a slightly different way of saying essentially the same thing. Think of the phrases “may I…” and “can I…” both phrases convey the same essential function of asking for permission, yet teachers and parents the world over will tell their children that one is more proper than the other. I really hope that our community has not fallen so low as to argue semantics. A potato is a potato, no matter where you live and blind is blind whether you use a white cane or a guide dog.

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