Social Conditioning: The Differently Abled

Thursday, July 20, 2006 21:23 | Filed in Accessibility, Articles, Language

In a thread on AccessifyForum this afternoon, the following question was asked:

is [visually] challenged accepted US terminology?Redux

A quote I found from the RNIB this afternoon seemed to suggest it was:

The term “Visually Challenged” has gained worldwide popularity with its clear intention to express a neutral attitude towards visual disability. In contrast, the terms “Visually Impaired”, “Visually Disabled” and “Visually Handicapped” have been defined as having clear meanings: Impairment concerns the functional loss like sight or disability, and handicap the social consequence of the functional lossRNIB

But then I thought, no, hang on a minute, surely that’s not right. What about the Ouch! Podcasts? The language used in there very strongly seems to suggest that blind er… differingly visual… um… disabl — oh sod it — them people what can’t see are sick of being labelled as "special" or "visually challenged", or even:

In Canada, for example, blind kids are now referred to as ‘children with visual exceptionalities’Ian Macrae

In fact, Ian goes on to higlight the fact that most people having a conversation will virtually bend over backwards to avoid using the word blind, and are uncomfortable about phrases involving vision. The Worst Word Vote while highlighting a lot of offensive terms for disability, also picks out ‘Brave’ and ‘Special’.

The problem we have is that disabled people find the term handicapped to be offensive; they don’t like saccharine terms like special or brave; they don’t like wooly terms like visually challenged. So what are we to say? Well, for someone who is blind or partially-sighted, you could try referring to them as blind or partially-sighted as appropriate. These are the terms used by the RNIB all the time, irrespective of what you can dig out on their site. Obviously, different terms will be appropriate for different disabilities, but the key is: don’t be offensive, but don’t be afraid to mention the disability. I mean, which question is likely to get a better response:

  • So, how did you lose your legs, then?
  • What happened to you that made you become mobility challenged?

The obvious answer to the second question being "I lost my legs". Oh, and is it just me or does visually challenged sound like a euphemism for ugly?

However, I’m a non-disabled person. I’m normal. What, I shouldn’t use the term normal to refer to myself as a non-disabled person? Well in that case don’t you think it’s about time we stopped calling disabled people special? I’ve met plenty of disabled people who aren’t anything special. Ugly, rude, inconsiderate, offensive and sometimes smelly — just like the rest of us. And let’s face it — is there anyone who never falls into any of those categories? And yet, I’ve not met any with X-ray vision. That really would be special.

Anyway, like I say, I’m not disabled, so I’m plagued with self doubt about whether I’ve got any right to talk about this sort of thing; whether or not I’m allowed to use the world "crippled" in this context without offending anybody (I was going to use that instead of ‘plagued’) and why do we get so worked up about being PC?

I suppose PC is better than plain offensive, but when people are told from some sources that we should use terms like visually challenged and then blind people get hacked off because we’re scared to use the word blind in conversation with them, we don’t really know what to do. We’re socially conditioned to believe that if we use the wrong word, we’ll be seen as crass, insensitive, prejudiced and so on. Yet we’re also socially conditioned to believe that we must be sensitive to people with disabilities; that the press and the media seem to be extra-specially careful when referring to disabled people — or should that be people with disabilities because hey they’re just people with a disability, rather than some sort of invalid person, yes?

We are conditioned to want to use the PC words because we’re scared of using the others. Still, it gives me the opportunity to quote a band from my student days:

A towering monument to disinformation,
beaming out on the current frequency
propaganda written out on the pages dailyEject (Senser)

But I’d be prepared to bet that what really bugs differently abled people (has anyone else heard that term? Did it bug you? Does it mean that someone without a disability is similarly abled?) is less the language being used when someone is genuinely trying to ask a rational question and more the constant discrimination and patronisation.

Me, I’d stick with using blind, partially-sighted and disabled. But what do I know about any of this? I’m just an opinionated so-and-so If you know better —and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t — let me know…

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

23 Comments to Social Conditioning: The Differently Abled

  1. Mark Magennis (DRem) says:

    July 21st, 2006 at 11:17 am

    There are a lot of sides to this debate and reasons why language is important, but a big part of the problem is missinterpretation due to lack of bandwidth. Far too often, it is deemed to be the fault of the person at the transmitting end (who used the wrong words), but the solution lies as much with the person at the receiving end (who assumed the wrong meaning). Also, the trasmiter is often very restricted in what they can do, whereas the receiver is in a much better position to do prevent missinterpretation.

    Reading your article from beginning to end, it is obvious that you have no disrespect for people with disabilities, you don’t want to cause any offence to anyone and you recognise the dificulties natural language presents. However, that picture emerges across a long article (high bandwidth) but it might be quite difficult to convey it in a shorter space (less bandwith). If, after reading your article, I still have doubts, I can ask you to clarify what you mean and hold a conversation with you about it (more bandwidth). Ultimately, it would be best to meet yo, get to know you and live with you for a while (huge bandwidth). Then I’d be able to really judge your attitudes. And this is what it’s all about. Actual attitudes. Then it doesn’t matter so much what words you use because I know what you mean. Just the same as I know what my mother means when she talks about “coloured people”, which to many is a derogatory term, but to her is more respectful than “blacks” (I’ve tried explaining but it’s useless).

    With lower bandwidth, we inevitably have problems accurately communicating. If you had to make a reference to people with disabilities in a single phrase outside of the context of a long article like this, you would not be able to explain your choice of words. So I, as the receiver, would have to accept that, cut you a little slack and avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions about your intentions based on very little evidence.

    It’s difficult. When someone uses all caps in an email message it really does LOOK LIKE THEY’RE SHOUTING. But I think it is up to us when we receive messages to be more open, less judgemental and keep in mind the difficulties inherent in expressing meaning through low bandwidth.

  2. Donna says:

    July 21st, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    Nice article Jack! :)

    Just a small thing about that RNIB quote – it’s from our publications archives, which means it dates from before 2000, so not really an indicator of current thinking etc. It was a review of the various terms which either were in use at the time or which might be appropriate (or not) in different circumstances. The article was kind of tackling the same issue you’ve addressed in this article, in fact, albeit in a more formal way.
    However the usage on the RNIB website which you noted is a better indication of RNIB’s current policy regarding “what words to use”. :)

  3. Emma says:

    July 21st, 2006 at 2:17 pm

    Great article! I was talking about this with a friend just yesterday and said the exact same thing about visually impaired sounding like someone who was ugly!

    He said “visually impaired” is actually incorrect as it means that a person is unable to visualise something, and blind/partially-sighted users can visualise ideas as well as the rest of us – better to use “vision impaired” if going down this route.

  4. Mike Cherim says:

    July 24th, 2006 at 12:35 am

    In the US I think the term “visually impaired” is the parlance de jour. A lot of this terminology comes not from those afflicted, but from government and certain rights groups who think they are doing good by constantly re-writing labels.

    I once knew a guy who was blind. According to him he was blind. He didn’t think much of these ever-sensitive labels well-meaning people apply.

    It’s sort of like blacks in America. It wasn’t until the 70s (I think) that “black” caught on as the term used to identify black people. However, to the blacks, they considered themselves black for 20-30 years prior to that time, maybe longer. And today, political correctness tells us — in the States — to refer to them as African Americans (unless they aren’t from Africa). However, to black people, I think they still haven’t changed a thing and consider themselves blacks.

    Labels can suck.

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