Word Choice

Yellow sticky note with "Hello my name is blank" on a green background.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?


24 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent blog on semantics! Labels can be very hurtful and it’s often unintentional so it can be corrected.

  2. What a beautifully written and much needed blog post, Susan. Please keep writing, your words are powerful. I hope you are doing well! ❤ -Christina Ruth

    1. Thanks, Christy! I appreciate the kind words. So nice to hear from you. I hope you are doing well, too.

  3. Casee says:

    Very well said. Words can hurt and for many people the sting never fully fades.

  4. Very well said. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Your mother did exactly the right thing at the right time: she explained. If we are going to categorise/discriminate, and we all do, we need to know what we are doing. It all comes down to education at an early age. Excellent blog and I am sending this to friends and family. On a similar theme I would be interested to know what you and your readers think of this. …Here in the UK most entertainment venues, ie. concerts, theatre, heritage sites, etc, allow people registered as VI to take someone with them free of charge. This is common practice but not ratified by law. My question is: what should the person accompanying me be called? My local cinema refers to them as my ‘enabler’, most other places as ‘career’. What do you prefer?

    1. Thanks, Bridget!
      Hmmm. Your question is a good one. Maybe companion? Complimentary guest is too long and awkward.

    2. Joy says:

      This is a really interesting question! The terms “enabler” and “career” would be consisted almost offensive here! I would say “sighted guide” or “assistant” (that sounds nice and posh, like I’m a CEO and have my own “assistant”! lol!)

      1. I find ‘carer’ offensive, slightly less offended by ‘enabler’ but not much. I dont like the idea of assistant if I’m with a friend, bit too posh! Not sure either about sighted guide in that context. Here guide dogs are called ‘seeing eyes’. It is quite a dilemma semantically! I usually end up giving a very long-winded and boring explanation. In the end I tend to resort to the classic opt out British solution of irony. Joy, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I’m sure we will have a light bulb moment and find the perfect word! How about ‘sighted friend’?

      2. Oh, I bet Helen Zaltzman of Answer Me This and The Allusionist podcast would create a term or two.

      3. Joy says:

        Ooh, I’ll have to check out that podcast! Yes, we will come up with a satisfactory term at some point! I’ll have to check out your blog Bridgette!

  6. Modwyn says:

    There’s an excellent chapter by Simi Linton on labels: http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=21

    It discusses the nuances of disability labels. For example, “confined to a wheelchair” rarely describes the experience of a wheelchair user who might feel that her chair helps her be more independent, not less so.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Modwyn!

  7. My aunt and I were just having a discussion the other day on “stick and stones…” and honestly if I were to choose I’d choose the sticks and stones because physical wounds heal but the emotional and psychological, well sometimes they never heal. It seems as we progress in society we are getting meaner and more uncaring than ever. I’ve always been sensitive to some of the words you mentioned on disabilities because of my son, mother and best friend all of whom have disabilities. And what has happed to compassion? Has it gone out of style? Most days I just shake me head at some of the comments peopel say when talking about other people. I don’t know if you follow the Holistic Wayfarer but she too did a post today on being heard. And of course you’ve already commented on my post on labels. I’m sensing a theme. Great post Susan!!

    1. Grassroots momentum, Steph! I couldn’t agree more with your comments. Also, let me know when you open a Bold Blind Beauty Shop so I can buy a “Compassion Never Goes Out of Style” signature tee.

  8. Susan, what a resource! I hadn’t heard of Answer Me This but will chase it up immediately. Many thanks.

  9. Joy says:

    Oh my gosh, this is so great! Your ending is hilarious and tied everything together perfectly! Love the “‘find the caretaker’ scramble” line too! Semantics is such a touchy thing, and I love how you pointed out that you can’t speak for all visually impaired/blind people (partially sighted, low vision, etc!) Even the word “blind” encompasses so many different meanings!

  10. Nice. I used to do art therapy with a boy who labeled himself ‘on wheels’, rather than ‘wheelchair-bound’, ‘crippled’, ‘handicapped’, ‘disabled’ etc. I don’t think he truly considered himself ‘disabled’, so why should others label him as such? He considered himself a boy who gets around in a chair with wheels instead of on his own two feet.

      1. He was a cute kid 😀

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