The terms we use carry with them significance. They can denote power and strength, or they can also denote weakness and other negative biases.
As a society, we have become more aware of the power of language when describing people who may identify in ways that are marginalized. Even better, we have been adopting language created by those people themselves.
I am a DeafBlind person. This is just one aspect of who I am – I’m also a husband and soon-to-be dad, a graduate student, an instructor at Perkins School for the Blind, an athlete, an author, an advocate and a dog lover.
All of us have so many aspects of our identity. Some are obvious to others around us. Some we can choose to reveal or not. As a DeafBlind person, I want to explore a new way to describe people with visual impairments.
Finding the right words
Even as I describe people as being visually impaired, I have already stepped into word doo-doo. “Visual impairment” is considered the accepted and politically correct term for describing the whole spectrum of vision, or the lack thereof, experienced by people with a visual disability. Yet, the Oxford Dictionary defines an impairment as being “weakened or damaged.” So using the word “impaired” already introduces the idea that people whose vision is not typical are in some way “damaged.”
Viewing people with disabilities as being damaged is not right. The deaf community, for example, does not accept the term “hearing impaired,” because people can lead fulfilling lives even with little or no hearing.
In an attempt to own the term “blindness,” the National Federation of the Blind has decreed that the term blindness is the preferred terminology. But I think this term has some problems, too.
First, the term “blind” is often used to describe someone as being ignorant. For example, “blind spot” means that you are ignorant of a particular situation, although being blind has no bearing on someone’s level of knowledge. As a deafblind person currently finishing up a second Master’s degree, I do not consider myself as living in ignorance.
Another challenge to using the term “blind” is that people often assume it means totally blind. It leaves out people with partial use of their vision.
One big issue facing our community is the lack of recognition for the whole spectrum of visual impairments. In fact, the majority of people living with visual impairments have some degree of vision. Some people may not be able to see in their periphery but see just fine in their central vision. Others may not be able to see in their central vision and, yet, see in their peripheral vision. There are others still who only see blurry images, and others who only perceive light and a million other kinds and degrees of vision.
Additionally, vision isn’t static; as we age, our vision (and hearing, and strength, and memory, and so on) often change as well. Vision is a spectrum, just like neurodiversity or gender fluidity. There are people who use canes who are not totally blind, and yet they get accosted on the street by people who do not understand why they use a cane.
Where do we go from here?
I like to suggest that the path forward is to invent a new term, one that is free of negative associations. We can invent a term that, instead of debasing people, empowers them to lead a fulfilling life. The term I propose is “visually diverse,” which can capture the whole spectrum of visual impairment. I can’t claim originality for this term, as people with Autism Spectrum Disorder regularly use the term “neurodiverse.”
This new term supports the understanding that visual impairment is a spectrum. It also recognizes that people with visual impairments bring with them a diverse perspective. This diversity in perspective means that we can bring more knowledge and understanding to the table, instead of less.
So what do you think? Please share your reactions and – especially if your vision is different from typical – your other suggestions!
About the author
Brian Switzer is the program and training specialist at Career Launch @ Perkins, a first-of-its kind program designed to give visually diverse young adults the skills, experience and support they need to land career-track jobs.
A high school math teacher earlier in his career, Brian became interested in access tech after losing his own vision. Since then, he has consulted with a number of fitness-minded tech firms like RunKeeper and Strava to make their digital applications more accessible. Brian is an outspoken advocate for people with blindness, low vision and deafblindness and holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Suffolk University.
He’s the author of “Walk In My Shoes: An Anthology of Usher Syndrome,” and has run marathons across the country, from Boston to Alaska. To learn more about Brian’s athletic pursuits, read his previous #MyBlindStory post, Rucking While Deafblind.