I was playing with my cat as a kid still in single digits on the kitchen floor. Twenty minutes passed. He decided he wanted to play elsewhere. The orange tabby was not quite fast enough. I scooped him up, looked at his face and called him a silly bastard.
Mom heard me. She was quick to admonish me by asking, “Do you know what that means?” I bet my ears turned red. My embarrassment grew when, as parents do, she gave the word’s definition. I stopped calling the cat a bastard.
Words have meaning. Handicapped. Crippled. The R word. Blind. Visually impaired. A person with a disability. Where do words and phrases like these come from? Check out the etymology of handicapped and see if you still want to refer to people with disabilities as handicapped.
Human nature tends to label and sort, to make sense of the world around us. Yet language evolves. Sometimes to save time. Sometimes to save face. Sometimes to criticize or belittle. No matter the source, labels are meaningful. I try to do a straightforward thing with labels. I put the person first. It’s not a thing I knew forever; it’s a way I decided I wanted to speak. Before gaining low vision, I didn’t think much about my privilege, the social power I wielded in America as “able-bodied” to casually run my mouth without considering the effects of my speech.
Tone and context convey meaning, too. If a person speaks to Stockton about me instead of to me, it makes me feel odd since I’m present and capable. I guess the white cane still confuses or flusters a few people into a “find the caretaker” scramble.
I identify with the label blind in a broad sense since I have a visual impairment, a disability. Plenty of people do not think of me as blind. That’s okay. If I run a 5k, the free t-shirts in XL don’t fit me no matter what the flyers say about sized-for-all, but does that mean I hate the t-shirt logo or more importantly, that I didn’t participate in the event?
Impairment varies from person to person, and identity preferences vary on an individual level, too. I carry a white cane but I don’t speak for all people with visual impairments nor can I speak for the larger community of people with disabilities. I can’t advise on someone else’s personal preferences. I can only offer a reminder to consider labels about people carefully.
If you don’t know how to refer to someone’s disability, it’s simple to solve. Admit ignorance and kindly ask the person his preference. Everyone wants to be heard. Part of being heard is referring to people by name. A cat can’t understand you, but the guy sitting in a wheelchair next to you can. If you refer to him as handicapped or perhaps wheelchair-bound without even knowing his name, who is the silly bastard now?