Ableist language from a Government minister on our public broadcaster. Disabled New Zealanders deserve better
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Is that one on a Tuis billboard yet?
We increasingly understand that words matter and can re-enforce or alter perceptions. Thankfully, most people find it distasteful at best, completely unacceptable at worst, when a personal characteristic is used as a pejorative.
When I was a child in the 70s, I would sometimes hear about someone taking “a Maori day off”, a disgraceful term which meant that someone was absent for no legitimate reason. That mattered because it reenforced the racist stereotype that all Maori are lazy.
Occasionally and unfortunately, people still use the word “retarded” to describe an idea or individual they think is ridiculous or stupid. I am disappointed by how many young people use the word “gay” in a similar way, and I trust all responsible parents are educating their children about both.
You sometimes hear people using the word “girl”: as a pejorative term, as in “don’t be such a girl about this”.
Fortunately, we have Maori, members of the LGBTQ community, and women in positions of influence in New Zealand, including in the media and Parliament. New Zealand has an appalling track record of disabled people being in influential positions, which makes us vulnerable to inaccurate and hurtful depictions. Perhaps that is why ableist language from a Government minister aired on our public broadcaster without any objection as there would have been had he used sexist or racist language. Yet what the Minister said was just as inappropriate.
I am totally blind, and one of the few disabled CEOs in New Zealand. Sometimes, people ask me to describe the biggest barrier I have had to overcome. My answer surprises people. While it isn’t the only barrier, the biggest one for me has been other people’s misconceptions about my blindness. New Zealand suffers from a lack of quality public education on the contribution disabled people can make, and desperately want to make, to society if only it were more inclusive, welcoming and accessible. Surveys have shown that going blind is one of people’s greatest fears, sometimes even trumping cancer. So without proper education, people often equate blindness with helplessness and an inability to do everyday things.
If we are going to change those perceptions and give disabled people a chance to contribute fully to Aotearoa, politicians and the media must show leadership. I was therefore disappointed, and genuinely shocked to read the following headline as I skimmed the podcast for RNZ’s Morning Report for 17 March.
“Govt still blind on Tiwai Pt contamination – Parker”. The description of the item in the podcast feed began, “The Environment Minister, David Parker says he’s still blind on contamination at Tiwai Point despite having had reports running to more than 170 pages for months”. And indeed that’s how the story was introduced by Morning Report co-presenter Susie Ferguson.
In the piece, which featured an interview with the Minister conducted by RNZ reporter Phil Pennington, Mr Parker makes it clear that the reports he has read are giving estimates only on the contamination at Tiwai point, and he doesn’t know the status of the soil and water.
During the interview, Phil Pennington asks the Minister when he saw the report under discussion. The Minister replies “September”. Phil Pennington then says, “yet last month you said that you were almost completely blind about this. Why did you say that?” To which the Minister replied, “because I am”.
Eventually, the interview concludes with Phil Pennington asking, “are you still blind as of now, because it was February when you said that”, to which Mr Parker replies, “yes I am”.
Let me be clear that when I describe myself, I use the word “blind” with pride. I don’t have sight loss because I never had sight to lose. I’m not visually impaired or visually challenged. I’m just blind.
What I am objecting to is the use of the word “blind” to mean ignorant, lacking information, or as an opposition MP might argue, not on top of one’s brief.
The litmus test here is to take out the word “blind” and look at what substitute words would make the sentence mean the same thing. The story could have been headlined “Govt still lacking information on Tiwai Pt contamination”, “Govt still unclear on Tiwai Pt contamination”, “Govt still ignorant on Tiwai Pt contamination”, “Govt still confused about Tiwai Pt contamination” …you get the idea. In no way was blindness a positive thing in this context.
There is no question that the Minister using the word “blind” in the manner he has, repeated in the headline without even quotation marks by RNZ, equates blindness with ignorance and a lack of information.
I am aware that by this stage of the article, there will be those getting ready to write comments with words like “woke” or “political correctness gone mad” in them. They will say that the word “blind” has always had multiple meanings, just look it up in the dictionary. They will say that this is a first-world problem, and don’t I have anything more important to write about.
And yet there will be those who have had traits attributed to them by virtue of their gender, or their race, or who they love, who will get this. When you use a word that describes an attribute that someone possesses or doesn’t possess as a negative, you perpetuate stereotypes.
What if the Minister in question was in fact blind? Would being blind prevent them from having information pertinent to the matter they’re being interviewed about? Many may erroneously think so. The first time I stood for Parliament in 1993, the first congenitally blind person to do so, someone got up at one of my public meetings and said, “you’re going to have a hard time if you’re elected, who’s going to be your eyes?” People make assumptions based on their incomplete knowledge. Many people can’t imagine how they would travel without sight, the idea frightens them. They can’t imagine how a blind person could use a computer; don’t you need to be able to see the screen? Many in this country may not be aware of successful senior blind politicians elsewhere in the world, like David Blunkett, blind from birth and the British Home Secretary during 9/11. Expectations of blind people are so low among the population in general that few people even notice anything odd when David parker says he’s almost completely blind about an issue for which he is the responsible minister.
That’s not going to change until people like me buckle up and tackle the inevitable gaslighting that comes from highlighting the ableism all around us. Disabled people are where Maori, women and the LGBTQ communities were decades ago. It’s not going to change unless we call it out.
I have always admired Mr Parker as a thoughtful politician and a particularly exceptional public policy practitioner. He is an ideas man and I like people who bring ideas to politics. I am certain he meant no offense or even realised what he was doing. That in no way exonerates him. He has denigrated an entire minority with ableist language. I would observe that if our House of Representatives were truly representative and included disabled people, someone would have already taken him to one side and quietly explained the offensiveness of his words to him.
Our public broadcaster ought to have standards and should know better. RNZ is far behind disability inclusion compared with its counterparts in other countries, who employ people with a variety of impairments and offer specialist programming on disability issues. The least it can do is call out, and stop using, ableist language.
This matters, because any disabled person who’s been passed up for a job due to misconceptions about their impairment knows that unless we change attitudes, we won’t raise expectations of disabled people. And if we don’t raise expectations of disabled people, we can’t fix the disability employment crisis.
As a blind person, I am claiming the word “blind” back with pride. Being blind doesn’t mean I’m ignorant. Being blind doesn’t mean I’m clueless. Being blind doesn’t make me misinformed. And a minister of the crown should not get away with using language that implies that it does. David Parker should apologise, and RNZ should lift its game when it comes to ableist language.