Political Correctness

Posted by admin on July 23, 2010

As we worked on creating and launching the new website for Transition 2 College, we stressed our belief and strong adherence to person first language with our web developers. Then a colleague, in his down-to earth rhetorical style that we at T2C have come to love, authored a piece that gave us pause. With the author’s permission, we have posted his thought provoking post in our T2C inaugural blog.

Join the conversation—we are interested in what you think!

Randall Borst wrote------

If I were to suddenly inherit a million bucks -- not possible in my family; I'm just saying -- if I were to inherit a million bucks, would I be a person with a million bucks, or would I be a millionaire? If I were an attractive young man -- excuse me -- person, would I be a person who was an attractive young man or a great lookin' dude?

I think we know the answers to those questions. Now lets pick something society doesn't like or is sensitive about: blindness. Now I have to be a person who is blind. We have to be sure that awful, nasty thing doesn't stick, doesn't rob one of ones identity, doesn't create a falsely imputed, spoiled identity. A stigma, of all things.

I stand squarely with the commenters that said in a nutshell that if blindness, disability/whatever isn't a bad thing why not let it describe.

Now, how about the reification of disability as resident? That's a really strange and counter-intuitive to me. You know, the notion that disability doesn't reside in the person; it resides in the environment. An inaccessible environment becomes disabled/disabling from that viewpoint. Why don't we say "environment with a disability"? In fact, maybe I'll start -- just out of respect for the environment. Just kidding. Disability doesn't reside anywhere -- like a flea on a rat or a falcon on a skyscraper. But when a person who has some impairment -- which is OK by the way for reasons I'll avoid here -- encounters environmental characteristics that were designed to exclude that person, it is not true that the person becomes more disabled or, when it is fixed, less so. The impairment is disabling, and the environment is inaccessible, exclusionary, what have you. One does not change the substance of the other, though both taken together draw attention from all observers and should cause concern leading to correction of the environment as well.

In the case of people, disability does not mean unable or incapable. The two are not opposites. Unable, however, is an opposite of able. Further, a disabled person is not unable in the manner of a disabled automobile, which does not begin with a mechanical impairment and then progress to disability if the car is substantially limited in the major life activity of go. "Disabled" is a common ascription to the automobile at the side of the road -- or in the center of it for that matter -- an automobile that won't go. To insist that a word have one and only one definition or one and only one preferred usage is to never have looked at a dictionary or a usage guide. Words have many definitions, how words are evoked and arranged in a particular expression is what gives meaning. For me to try to separate my blindness from myself as though some critter had landed on me one day to take up residence, or, alternatively, landed on a traffic light that I may be unable to see, in order to let motorists drive through an intersection to run me over, avoids the problem that I 1) will get hit if I step into the unavoidable approach of an oncoming car or 2) that I can learn to safely cross the street without seeing the traffic light. Or at least I will be able to, when hybrid and electric cars begin emitting audible tones. Reality tops rhetoric, and rhetorical choices should be made to describe reality, not to avoid some imagined reality that may not even exist -- like where disability resides, whether I am a person who is blind or a blind guy.

Have fun.

Reduce, reuse, recycle ... rephrase.

Randy Borst
Director of Disability Services
University at Buffalo
Past President
Association on Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD)

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