Blogging Against Disablism 2017: Sight, Light, and Language

There have been many articles written on the subject of the “language of awareness,” one or two of such articles may even have been written by yours truly. there has also been some controversy in the disability community about the appropriate or accurate use of that language, as some have insisted that “people first” language is the only way to respectfully, effectively, interact with an individual who has a disability, because it places the emphasis on the human being, rather than the disability. In other words, the person being referred to is not defined by their disability, they are a person, first. There have been others, though, who have vehemently disagreed with this notion, feeling that they are, in fact, defined by their disability, and further, are proud of it.

Over the years, I’ve read so many thoughtful articles written about disability awareness and etiquette, advising any number of “do’s and don’ts” on everything from best practices for communicating with the neuro atypical to humorous missives on the importance of speaking directly to a guide dog user, rather than to the guide dog. These articles, for the most part, have done a great job tearing down stereotypes and facilitating interactions between disabled and non-disabled persons. Much of that which appears here on the Accessible Insights Blog has emphasized blindness, since I am blind as the result of a congenital, degenerative disease of the retina, called Retinitis Pigmentosa.

One of the topics I’ve always wanted to write about is the intriguing connection in the English language between eyesight and understanding. Some of my own work has explored the concepts of the soft bigotry of low expectations, the treatment of people who are blind as intellectually inferior, when, for example, a blind individual is spoken to loudly or slowly, or where there is a presumption of incompetence. Of course, it is not factually accurate to say that a person who cannot see also cannot understand, yet this myth is perpetuated, thanks in part, it seems, to the idiosyncratic nature of English. It also occurred to me that there are words related to “light,” that are associated with knowledge, cognition, and discernment.

The first such instance is the direct link between two simple words that explicitly convey comprehension: “I see.” Another example is “I saw the light.” When we ask for an explanation, we might say, “enlighten me.” When we express appreciation for gaining that knowledge, we might say, “that was quite illuminating.” When we want to impart knowledge, we might say, “let me shed some light on that subject.” If we want to expose a falsehood, we offer to “shine the bright light of truth” on something. Finally, even the rising sun can take credit for the sudden remembrance, acknowledgement, or grasp of an idea…as when we say, “it dawned on me.” Word nerd that I am, I consulted my favorite reference books pertaining to the use of language, and I discovered some interesting linguistic connections between having eyesight, and possessing understanding.

Here are more specific examples, where the word being defined can be explained by phrases analogous to eyesight:

The word perceive, as a verb, means to become aware of, or to comprehend via our senses. Often it is inferred that the perception is by sight or to have the power to perceive by sight. In another example, perceive is used with an inference to an idea, such as, “Oh, now I see.” Or, “I don’t see your point.”

To be contemporaneous with, as in, “you’ll soon see the value here.”

To imagine, or conceive of, as in, “I can see it in my mind’s eye,” or, “I don’t see him doing such a thing.”

To think about something in a particular way, to regard or consider, as in, “sorry, I just don’t see things as you do.” Or, “I don’t see the situation as being all that bad.” Or, “we just don’t see eye-to-eye.”

To make a determination, to find out something, for example, “I want to see if this works.” Or, “I think we should see if she knows how to change a tire.”

To make certain of something, such as, “see to it the door is closed,” or “see that the lights are off when you go.”

To consult with a professional, “I need to see a dentist.”

To take charge, such as, “I saw to it that the project was completed on time.”

To understand detail, as in, “he has a good eye.”

To deliberate or decide, for example, “See whether you can come tomorrow”;

To experience, as in, “he saw action in Iraq.”

To make sense of, or interpret, as in, “what’s the messaging you’re seeing here?”

Here are even more examples:

When you’re really mad, you’re “seeing red.” when you are accompanying someone to the airport, you are “seeing him off.” And, when you are sure someone is being untruthful, you might say, “I saw right through her.” Some of these examples are simply colloquial, but in the context of blindness, greater accuracy in communication can get a bit tricky, not to mention awkward.

Based on these examples, it isn’t hard to see (yikes!) how it may be possible that so much of the passive prejudice or soft bigotry we face may be unintentional, in part due to an inherent language bias that can make disablism that much easier, simply because of the words we use every day.

So, now that you’ve read to the end of my submission for BADD 2017 on the many ways in which the concept of understanding can be transmogrified by language, you can now say you’ve seen the light!


Previous Blogging Against Disablism Day submissions:

You Don’t Look Blind


It’s On Aisle 5


Your Ingenious Life