Person-First Language: It Does More Harm Than Good
Some years ago, the New Zealand Government published a discussion document on its Disability Strategy. In that document, they referred to “people experiencing disability”. The response to this convoluted emasculation of the English language was a resounding “bah” from the majority of those actually being described. As a result, New Zealand Government policy, by request of the majority of those living with disability on a daily basis, is to refer to “disabled People”. Thank goodness for that.
Yet every so often, I still come across professionals who insist on referring to “people who are blind”, “people with vision impairments”, or even “people experiencing blindness”. There’s also that ghastly term “visually challenged”, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
There are many adjectives that might be used to describe us. I’m a white guy. I’m a short person. I’m also a blind man. Saying that I’m a blind person no more defines me in totality than saying I’m a white man. It’s just one adjective that might be used to describe me.
Why does this matter? It matters because when you go through unnatural-sounding linguistic hoops to describe one particular characteristic, it draws more attention to it than it would were you to use more regular construction. My partner Bonnie is a beautiful woman. Sometimes, I remember to tell her that. If I were to describe her, either to her directly or someone else, as a woman experiencing beauty, everyone would think that a rather peculiar turn of phrase, or should that be a turn of phrase with peculiarity?
There is a widely held myth among the general public who don’t often encounter blind people, that “blind” is somehow an inappropriate word to use. Part of that is because of all the person-first language that was so in vogue a few years ago, and that stragglers still cling to.
People genuinely curious about the needs, capabilities and opinions of blind people, should be able to ask honest and thoughtful questions without being hung up on the language.
During the person-first madness, it was claimed that using person-first language would remind people that we’re people first, our disability is second. All it did was to make us seem too sensitive and politically correct, and intimidate people who became fearful of offending by using the wrong words in the wrong order. Open, easy dialogue is critical to us gaining more jobs and improving understanding of how capable one can be even when one is blind.
Yes, as well as a blind person, I’m an opinionated person, but in this case, my opinion is widely shared by a number of organisations of the blind, including the National Federation of the Blind in the US, and our own Blind Citizens New Zealand.
It seems to me that it’s predominantly a few professionals now holding on to the person-first thing. Blind people themselves, and indeed in this country, disabled people at large, have spoken. It complicates communication and makes language sound unnatural. While done with the very best of intentions, it’s doing more harm than good.
Right! Having written this, time for me to press the button with sendness.