Monday, April 25, 2011

Only Words?

I've been wanting to talk about language, and how its used, for quite some time now. Especially as it relates to how we describe ourselves as people with disabilities.

We each have our own identity, and my identity is just that-- mine. I don't believe that my identity or the terms by which I describe myself should be used by everyone. It is up to the individual to define their own identity. This blog entry is about my identity and the language I use to define it.

I'm Deafblind. There-- I said it; Deafblind. Two of the most dreaded words in any language compounded into one. Deafblindness is its own unique state of being. It is neither deafness, nor blindness, but both, together. This means that the technological, social, and practical alternative techniques used to live a full and happy life are not the same as those used for those whose only disability is deafness or blindness.

I am a Deafblind person who is learning American Sign Language, which is its own unique language. It is not English broken down into gestures. ASL has its own grammar, syntax and idioms. I am becoming more involved in the Deafblind community. Each day that passes I am becoming more and more culturally Deafblind.
I guess I should go back and explain the difference between Deafblind (large D), and deafblind (small d.). Deafblindness is cultural. People who are Deafblind use American Sign Language (or other local signed languages) to communicate. Deafblind people have their own history, set of values, and traditions. Now we get to deafblindness, which is the medical condition causing the hearing and sight loss. There are many people who can be deafblind but who still prefer to use spoken language to communicate. These people are usually not involved in the Deafblind community, and do not accept Deafblind cultural norms for their own.

When people speak of my lack of vision or hearing I want them to use the word "Deafblind." I eschew ridiculous terms such as hard of seeing or hearing challenged. The term sightless is annoying, archaic, and brings to mind the image of a man begging on the street. It is putting the focus upon what I do not have.

The term hearing impaired is offensive. Hearing people were the first to use it, in an attempt to be more politically correct. Again, the person who cannot hear is described as being lesser. Hearing is seen as "normal" and therefore better. A hearing person is not better than me. I have my own identity and I want to be described as Deafblind.

Think of it this way. We have many different religions world-wide. Imagine if we took one religion, lets say... Mormonism and made it the "norm." Everyone who wasn't a Mormon would then be called religion impaired. Would you like that? Would you like for your identity as a Catholic, or Muslim, or Wiccan to be dismissed as not the norm, lesser than, Mormons?
When people use the phrase (fill in the blank) impaired, the focus turns to what the person is lacking, not what they have. I do not want to be defined by what I am not. At first it may seem polite to use the word "impaired" lest the label deaf, blind, hard of hearing etc. be seen as offensive to the person. Some people don't mind being defined as impaired. Some people keenly feel the loss of a sense such as vision or hearing, and do feel as though they are lesser than a "normal" person. However, as I said, this is my blog and we're talking about me.

Our society is afraid of deafness and blindness. We are afraid of offending the deaf or blind person so we come up with all of these politically correct workarounds. I also think there is another element of fear involved; the fear of deafness and blindness itself. If you use words like "sight challenged" it sounds a great deal less final, and scary than "blind." Our society doesn't like saying the words because we don't like to think about deafness, or blindness, or even more so, deafblindness. I have noticed this particularly with blind people. I have met many blind people who do not like to use the word deaf. No matter how many times I remind them that I'm deafblind, some people continue to refer to me as a bit hard of hearing, or hearing challenged. Just like sight loss is one of the biggest fears of many sighted people; hearing loss is one of the biggest fears of many blind people.

I want to be referred to as deafblind. Deafblind is what I am. The label of deafblindness does not seek to put limits on me; or to make me seem lesser than, the norm.

Deafblindness is another characteristic of mine-- like my red hair, my freckles, or my ability to wiggle my ears.

Deafblindness itself doesn't limit me; society does. Every time a deafblind person doesn't get an interpreter for a doctor's appointment because someone in the office didn't think they needed it, or forgot to schedule it, we are being limited. Every time a deafblind person is denied access to a restaurant due to the presence of their assistance dog, that is another way society limits us. Every time a deafblind person is dismissed from a job interview before it has even started because the person doing the interview is ignorant about the capabilities of deafblind people, that is another challenge put in the deafblind person's path. The people doing these things make up our society. If I'm impaired in any way; I am societally impaired.

Words matter. My words matter; your words matter. We should all think before using them.


  1. Love this post!! I think it's hard for peple to understand why we choose to use the words we do and then why another person with a similar disability might choose to use different words. I think political correctness has gotten so out of hand in some respects, so people are afraid to offend others through using the "wrong" words. I've actually had people appologize for using the words "look" and "see" with me. I just laugh and tell them that it makes me happy to know they don't view me as any different from the others around them.

    There are very few words which upset me. They are ones which possess a negative undertone or history behind them.

  2. Well said!We are all our own identities. We all just have different abilities, and different ways of doing things.