By Cheryl Wade, BCF Consultant
I get a little nervous when a stranger walks up and asks, “Have you been, uh, sightless all your life?”
I’m not nervous because of me; I get the feeling the other person is ill at ease, not knowing how to say “blind” in the most polite, inoffensive way possible. Maybe “blind” is too stark a word, too firmly associated with “something I would not like to be.”
I have asked a number of my “blind” friends, and that’s the word they like. People who have discussed this issue in magazines for the blind generally agree. After all, it’s accurate, it describes the issue and it’s not euphemistic, like “visually challenged” or “unsighted.” And, if these people are anything like me, we’re used to it.
In short, “blind” is fine – unless, of course, you can SEE something. If you’re legally blind but you can see traffic, maybe street signs, probably read print in at least some form, you might want to be called “visually impaired.” That’s fine, too.
This issue of language was brought home to me when, as a young newspaper reporter, I felt some now-unremembered need to tell a news source that I was “visually impaired.” The man responded with something like, “No, you’re not; you’re blind.”
Whoa! Let’s be diplomatic, now! But I realized, then and there, that I had been lying just a bit. I really can’t see a thing except some light in my left eye. I don’t know how to focus my “good” eye. I can’t tell if the light I see is the moon, a street light or lights of an approaching city. And that’s OK.
The National Federation of the Blind has done a very good job of promoting the idea that “it’s OK to be blind.” And, in many ways, it is. It is OK because being blind wasn’t our choice. It’s OK because there’s usually nothing any of us can do about it; because blindness doesn’t have to take away our independence, our sense of fun, or our freedom to live our own specific lives. It’s OK because it’s not some horrible scourge, curse or trouble that makes us weird, pitiful or unlovable.
To change tone a bit, I do like “people first” language – putting the person before the disability. In the 1960s, before this language was fashionable, my mother insisted that my brother and I were “people who just happened to be blind.” The idea is that blindness is just one of a person’s attributes, like hair color, ancestry, height.
Although I do like people first language, I must admit that, alas, I’m a “blind person” at my core. It’s an in-group, almost cultural thing. I attend an event for blind and visually impaired skiers. I’ve been a blind student. It just turned out that way.