Last week I went to a panel discussion organized by the New York Museum Access Consortium. There were four panelists representing different disabilities and a moderator from MAC. The audience was made up mostly of people from disability rights organizations and museum personnel.
The evening’s topic was “Mindful Communication.” Avoiding hurtful or offensive language when talking about disability isn’t as easy as it sounds. “People first” is a generally accepted standard. To use hearing loss as an example, a person is not “hearing impaired,” because that suggests that the way he or she hears defines who he or she is. We prefer “people with hearing loss.” (For more on parsing terms for hearing loss see my post “Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Hearing Impaired? Be Careful What You Call Us.”) It took me a long time to realize that “hearing impaired” is a distasteful term to many with hearing loss – and I have hearing loss! So I’m relatively easy on others who slip up on the politically correct terms.
After the panelists introduced themselves, with visual descriptions for the blind in the audience, the moderator led the discussion with a variety of questions. I can’t do justice to the full hour’s discussion but a couple of comments stuck with me.
The panelists were asked what kind of language they found offensive. I expected to hear them say that casual ignorant slurs were hurtful. Instead, the answers were much more complicated.
Ansel, who has visible disabilities and uses a wheelchair, said he dislikes it when someone trying to be kind says: “God bless you.” He doesn’t feel the need to be blessed, and finds it condescending. But he doesn’t get angry. “If it makes them feel good, it’s okay.”
Nefertiti, who is blind, dislikes being called “amazing.” When she was growing up, people were always saying how amazing she was. “I was such an amazing kid just for getting up in the morning! It gave me a little bit of an ego.” She prefers to think of herself as “just a human being doing what I do. It doesn’t mean I’m amazing just because I’m blind.” Of the term “disabled” she said cheerfully, “I feel pretty abled.”
In the question and answer period, one museum employee spoke about the difficulty of using correct and acceptable language in written literature like museum guides. “We’re working with a staff with a fear around language,” she said, to nods of agreement from others in the audience. Another of the panelists, Madison, suggested that staff take their lead from the community in question. Nefertiti similarly suggested listening to the person or group and then mirroring the language they use.
This brought the conversation back around to the panel’s topic: Mindful Listening. Mindful Listening is always important, as Nefertiti pointed out. If, for instance, a sighted person offers to help a blind person cross the street, and doesn’t listen to a polite “No thanks,” nobody wins: “The blind person is offended and the sighted person is baffled.”
Some of the more digressive responses were also insightful. One of the challenges Nefertiti faces as a blind woman was something I’d never considered. Being blind, she said, means that she misses the culture of body language. Someone will say “She’s a nice girl but….” Think of all the ways you could end that sentence without saying another word: With a shrug (suggesting “… she’s not very effective at her job”), with a roll of the eyes (“…. the clothes she wears make her look like a slut”), with a shake of the head (“… not for me!”), with raised eyebrows accompanied by a shoulder hitch (“… who knows what she’ll get into next”). Etc.
A full transcript of the discussion can be found here.
Coincidentally, this week Major League Baseball announced that it would discontinue use of the term “Disabled List” for players who were injured. The change came about after advocates for people with disabilities complained, according to the New York Times. The Times quoted Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which encourages greater inclusion of people with disabilities in society: “The disability community identifies with the term ‘disabled,’” he said “When it’s used incorrectly, when someone is injured, not disabled, that’s offensive.” He went on: “People with disabilities do not consider themselves injured….Someone who tears an A.C.L. is not permanently disabled.”
It’s true (usually) that they are not permanently disabled, but should they happen to use a wheelchair for a period of time, they are entitled to the same rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act as people with more permanent disabilities. Nobody ever said the ADA was restricted to those with permanent injuries. In any case, goodbye to the DL and welcome the “Injured.”
Most of my readers have hearing loss. I’d love to hear your comments about terms and comments that offend you.
For more about hearing health, my book “SMART HEARING.” will tell you everything I know about hearing loss, hearing aids, and hearing health. Available online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, in paperback or ebook for Kindle or NOOK.