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Have Changes in Language Changed Attitudes?

Editor's Note: John Rae is AEBC's 1st Vice President. He writes and speaks extensively on a variety of disability issues.

Over the past two decades, we have seen many changes in the words and labels used to describe and portray persons with various disabilities. Though we have all heard the old saying, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me," words can and do hurt and offend, and are often used as tools of oppression. Changes have come about in an effort to find new ways of describing disability, which is too often perceived as being tragic and negative.

What so many non-disabled individuals fail to realize is that many people with disabilities feel that their lives have been enriched by their experience. They may dislike the poverty, exclusion and hassle, but recognize that disability is an inevitable aspect of being human and growing older. Carrying on one's life as a person with a disability is not being "courageous" or "brave," but it does require one to be an ingenious problem solver, and that trait should make more of us valuable assets to companies wishing to be successful, and to society as a whole.

In the case of Canadians who are blind, we have moved from the label "the blind" to "blind persons," and more recently to "persons who are blind." But have these changes in language helped to create corresponding improvements in public attitudes, opportunities, and in the ways in which Canadians who are blind are perceived by our fellow citizens? Only somewhat! This is partly due to the fact that within the general population, these more politically correct terms are largely unknown. And while many Canadians prefer the more person-centred approach, others believe that a term like "the blind" is more likely to foster badly needed group solidarity.

The language we use does say a lot about how we view a particular group in our society. In an effort to develop more positive ways of depicting persons who are blind, euphemisms like “visually limited”, “sightless”, “unseeing”, and the grammatically incorrect “visually impaired” have emerged. Laudable though these efforts may be, too frequently the negative attitudes that were attached to the old phrases quickly transfer to these new terms, with only minimal attitudinal change taking place.

Today, many outmoded and stereotyped words and phrases are still commonly used. Some of the most egregious are “blind drunk”, “blind rage”, “blind as a bat”, “putting blind faith in leaders”, “made a blind stab at answering the question”, “flying blind through the fog”, “blind to a lover's faults”, “rob someone blind”, “prejudice that blinded them to the merits of the proposal”, “a blind item in a military budget”, “blind leading the blind”, and “seeing is believing”.

Blindness is only one of many characteristics that help to define us. We are students, workers, travellers, members of community committees, etc. But too often our blindness is all the sighted public sees. We need far more than just changes in terminology; we need strong and effective programs that will help to combat Ableism, which can be briefly described as the belief that it is far better not to have a disability than to have one, and that it is better to do things in the way that non-disabled people do them.

We need to begin educating the public at an early age. While schools often advocate multiculturalism and acceptance of differences, Ableism, which is similar to other types of discrimination, is often unrecognized as an important issue, or overlooked altogether. Programs that emphasize ability awareness, disability content in curriculum and school activities, and hiring teachers with disabilities to act as role models, will all help to break down outmoded attitudes and barriers that are the true dis-ablers in our society. They will also help to emphasize the true capabilities of persons who are blind, and what it is truly like to live one's life as a blind person. Then maybe the public will view us in a more realistic light and see us as persons first!

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