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Words Can and Do Hurt! Time to Speak Out

By Linda Bartram

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Most of us remember these words from our childhood. We heard them in the playground and perhaps shouted them ourselves at a taunting bully. Despite the need to appear unaffected by such cruel words, they probably did hurt at some level.

I propose that the same is true when society uses the word blind in negative metaphors to make a point. The use of the word blind in the literal sense in phrases such as blind corner, blind spot or a blind that hangs on your window are innocuous. In these cases, they are referring to the inability to literally see. But when the word is used to portray ignorance or incompetence, I must protest.

Phrases such as “he was a blind fool” or “she was blind to the truth” are negative metaphors meant to portray an individual as ignorant or stupid, or that they lack discernment. The phrase “the blind leading the blind” is not used to describe a blind orientation and mobility instructor training a blind student how to navigate independently, but is meant to conjure up the image of one incompetent individual stumbling along, trying to assist an equally incompetent individual and that inevitably, they will both fall into a ditch.

How is it that in this day of enlightenment and political correctness, we continue to hear and read such phrases? How is it that this phrase is commonly used by the media, in literature and heard on the street and from the pulpit, perhaps even used by our families and friends?

When I hear the word blind used in a negative metaphor, I have a visceral reaction and the words do hurt! They not only hurt me personally as a blind individual, but I believe they contribute to the bias--conscious and unconscious--that society has towards blindness. They influence society’s beliefs about what persons who are blind can and cannot do. And every time society hears or reads these words, I believe the stereotype is reinforced.

We know that attitudinal barriers contribute to the high unemployment rate of persons who are blind, deafblind and partially sighted and hinder us from participating fully in society. Perhaps one way to affect attitudinal change is to change the words we tolerate. Perhaps the next time the word blind is used to portray something negative, we will speak up and say, “You can’t use such language anymore because it is offensive and ableist.”

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