Thursday, December 30, 2010

Words: Another Question

At first it struck me as funny. Then it made me think. I was tooting along in the mall and I saw a woman slowly waving a white cane in front of her as she walked. I pulled over to the side to ensure she had lots of room to pass. My wheelchair is completely silent as it moves and, as it takes up significant space, I want to be careful. I could hear the tap, tap, tap, of her cane as she walked, confidently. On her arm was a man, I'm guessing her husband, his cane was folded up and carried casually in his hand.

Not something that would normally strike me as noteworthy. A wonderfully ordinary scene that occurs more and more often as we, disabled people, take our rightful place in the community. I noticed that practically no one noticed. Well beyond being careful to not be in the way, but seconds after passing - the incident was forgotten.

What distracted me was the words that popped into my mind: the blind leading the blind.

I have always heard that phrase in reference to the concept of the incompetent directing the incapable. I'm not sure that it's a term that I've ever used. But it's one that I hear, if not often, regularly.

And here I was seeing the blind leading the blind and what I saw was a man relaxed in the confidence that the woman he was with was guiding him properly. I imagined the math going on in her head. She'd have to have an exact sense of how much space he took up and how much space she needed to leave beside her in order for catastrophe to be avoided. The sweep of her cane was broad but she did it as if she'd done it a thousand times before.

So the blind leading the blind isn't necessarily a bad idea, and further, may actually be a good one.

The thing is it got me thinking about language and the use of disability as a metaphor for inadequacy and incapacity and incompetence.

turning a deaf ear

blind ambition

crippling desire

lame excuses

Those are just some of the ways that disability has made it into language. Oddly, disability as metaphor is more welcome than disability in reality. It seems that one of the best and easiest ways to telegraph an idea is to link it to a disabling condition. We are told that this is just language and it doesn't mean anything about attitudes.

I'm not sure. In fact I've taken a pledge to eliminate the use of disability as an adjective to diminish a noun. I can't believe how often I have to edit my own speech.

I'm wondering, do you notice when people use these kinds of words, how do you react to them?


Tamara said...

I have to say that I'm just always amazed how people can walk without sight and with a cane. I will have to say, I've been known to stare because I just think it is so cool.

But to answer your question, I've been noticing those types of metaphors more and more over the years. And before that, I noticed the ones that were racial that I didn't even think about being racial when I grew up hearing about them.

I haven't reacted to them, but I have been trying to remove them from my speech, and I've also been kind of shocked at how many times they pop into my head.

I've also been annoyed - very annoyed - at how many people blast away at the "r" word, then use words like "lame" and "idiot". I got into a bit of an argument about the word "lame" on a Down syndrome parents discussion board quite a few years ago and was basically told I was wrong. That it was perfectly acceptable to call something "lame" because of the dictionary definition.


Susan said...

I catch myself sometimes, and sometimes I say it anyway... rationalizing to myself, "Well, at least it's not the R word."

But you're right. That's not the only word, or phrase that shouldn't be used because of the subtle (or to some, "not so subtle") message that is in there.

I'm joining you in the pledge... And I should not have needed to be told.

Moose said...

I have been fighting with myself because I have used the I word for way too long in my life. I am trying hard to substitute the word "idjit" instead. It's sort of a heck-instead-of-hell but it's an improvement, I think.

'lame' is going to be an uphill battle. It, like the word 'gay', has been used as slang for a long time. Unfortunately it's been in use a longer time than 'gay', which is slowly wending it's way back out of fashion [thankfully].

Side comment: The first time someone took me to task over the words 'moron' and 'idiot', they told me, "You can't use those words, someone might be offended!" That really pissed me off, because mythical "someone" can be pissed off about anything. It took me a long time to realize what they were really trying to say.

Sometimes it's how you approach folks who use offensive language as much as it is the language itself. If they had said, "Those words were once used to degrade people, using them as slang doesn't remove the degrading factor" or something I might have been a lot more receptive to their argument.

Or maybe I'm just a jerk.

northlighthero said...

I might be speaking from my able-bodied privilege, of course, but for me the phrases you cite are not equivalent.

"Turn a deaf ear" is something I have, in fact, seen people do very literally. A relative had a substantial hearing loss in one ear, and if he wanted to indicate his unwillingness to hear something I was saying he would pointedly lean the deaf ear in my direction. In direct contrast to what he did when I was saying something he wanted to hear better, and he might turn his head quite far around in order to position the "good" ear in my direction.

Now, I agree with you whole-heartedly about such expressions as "that's such a lame ___" and "the blind leading the blind".

I just want to call out as possibly useful, as well as accurate, expressions that suggest a person is metaphorically doing something that another person might do literally. I'm not sure that "turn a deaf ear to __" is any different from "steamrollered right over __" in that way.

Or what am I missing?

Andrea S. said...


The literal form of "turn a deaf ear" that you describe here is a very rare use of the phrase. What is far, far, far more common is seeing the phrase used to describe HEARING people who DO NOT WANT TO LISTEN. If you google the term, you will find that it often is used in news stories about politicians or other people in authority not listening to certain segments of the population.

As a deaf person, this use of the term bothers me because, excuse me, but me being deaf has nothing to do with my attitude toward LISTENING to other people. If I'm communicating with someone who can't sign then it does take me more work to listen--and, if the other person is doing their fair share of the work, then it takes more work for them to communicate with me too. But being deaf in and of itself shouldn't be used as a code word for "refusing to listen." Because that simply isn't what it means.

Because the phrase is used so very often as a metaphor, how can you expect me to automatically understand your meaning when you attempt to use it in a more literal fashion? Even saying "literally" wouldn't help that much because too many people misuse the word "literally" too!

And even in the very rare literal case: Do you really mean to highlight the fact that your relative is pointing his deaf ear toward you? Or are you really more interested in communicating the fact that your relative sometimes doesn't want to listen? If you mean the latter, then SAY the latter. If you feel you really have to describe HOW he signals lack of interest, fine, DESCRIBE it, as you did here. Don't use the metaphor because how are we supposed to know that you are the one in a million case who actually has a literal meaning in mind when you use it?

Another point: are you certain you know which ear is the more "deaf" ear? Maybe you really do know for sure. But I raise this question because people often assume I hear less in my right ear because that's the one with a hearing aid in it. But I actually hear less with my left ear--which is WHY I don't wear a hearing aid in my left ear, because even with the amplification provided by a hearing aid I still wouldn't get that much out of it. So if you are making a guess on how well your relative hears based on which ear he uses a hearing aid with, then you may be guessing wrong. I hear much better in the ear I use a hearing aid with--even when I'm NOT wearing a hearing aid!

Also, are you certain you know the reason why your relative picks one ear or the other to point in your direction? If his hearing loss is relatively recent, and/or if there is less difference in hearing level than you realize between the two ears, he may still be experimenting with what helps him best in understanding you. This would especially be the case if his actual hearing levels vary from one day (or one hour) to the next: although many/most relevant conditions cause a relatively stable level and type of deafness (like mine), some conditions can cause dramatic and unpredictable fluctuation in the level of hearing loss. If he has one of the latter, then his "good" ear might not always be the same one.

Or, if he is merely hard of hearing (i.e., a more mild hearing loss ... and it occurs to me that if he is trying to HEAR you better rather than looking at your face to lip read you, then this might be the case ... unless he is so new to being deaf that he hasn't figured out yet how much lipreading can help) then maybe it doesn't actually make as much difference as you think which ear he points at you if both ears have a relatively mild level of hearing loss. If he were that deaf (and had enough experience to know what really helps him best), then he would probably be depending more on visual cues, such as lipreading, and only partly on auditory cues.

Hope this helps address your question. I appreciate your interest.

Anonymous said...

I greatly enjoy this blog & have learned a lot about my own & societal attitudes about appearances & disability. I'm not sold on the issue of policing language, though. It's possible that I'm just an insensitive jerk, writing from my position of middle class privilege. Or that I just can't care that much if Christmas card writers want to address me as Mrs. Husband's Name instead of Ms My Name. Or that I am pretty regularly annoyed by my boss' fixation on political correctness. Just so you know the background.
It seems to me that it's pretty common for exquisite sensitivity to certain words to be wielded like a sword or worn like a badge of honor. It can replace meaningful efforts at change (taking R*** out of the state department's name hasn't made services any better or more available & nor changed its being a medical dx). It can be used to alientate those who are not so sensitive but are pretty okay human beings (our friends, co-workers, & relatives).
By not using words that others understand or that reflect reality we become hamstrung in our ability to communicate about the world. (wait! "hamstrung" refers back to torture! how awful; best find another word). At it's worst, inaccurate use creates bizarre worlds that (presumably unintentionally) undermine the speaker's intention. For example, it's not unusual to hear staff working w/ people w/ severe intellectual disabilites say "s/he's so smart". My guess is that they mean that they appreciate this person's sense of humor, ability to communicate w/ few words, ability to relate, choice in music, etc. But what they say is not true insofar as most of society understands "smart". Further,that usage seems to support the belief that being "smart" should (or does)have anything to do w/ being a whole, valuable person.
Further,language evolves. It's hard for me to understand castigating words that for all intents & purposes have ceased to hold their original meaning. My suspicion is that the underlying message of some of the exquisitely sensitive is that everyone should be "nice" all the time. Unfortuately, not naming aspects of our baser selves has never helped much with making them go away.

Sonia Connolly said...

I have also committed to removing disability metaphors from my speech. I'm enjoying the challenge of noticing and saying what I really mean.

For example, my work colleagues continue to use the R-word. After telling them once privately that the word is not polite, I respond to its use by saying, "Yes, that interface is annoying," or, "I agree, that was badly designed." They pause awkwardly, and move on.

Over time, I'm hoping the new phrases (and awareness) will catch on.

northlighthero said...

Andrea S., thanks for your helpful explanations, both about some kinds of hearing loss and about the problematic use of metaphorical language in literal way.

You've persuaded me that the rare moment when a description might be literally accurate is not worth the trouble it causes for folks who might hear it differently than I meant it. I very much appreciate your raising the point that someone hearing -- or overhearing -- me say "turn a deaf ear" might easily believe that I was using able-ist language or, equally easily, they might receive encouragement to use able-ist language themselves.

In the case of my uncle, though, I'm wryly amused to find once again how different it can be to see something, and say a few words about it, than to hear something, and imagine what is being talked about. My uncle's hearing loss was profound, permanent, and not the least variable. A laboratory accident in his youth had traumatically burst the eardrum on the one side, and the subsequent infection prevented the return of any hearing on that side. The other side was apparently unaffected.

I also very much appreciate the important difference between "not listening" and "deafness."

I just love the conversations Dave starts. Thanks for being willing to engage on this.

Dave Hingsburger said...

I'm very much enjoying this conversation, thanks all so much for participating with these questions over the last few days. I like diverse points of view, I even like respectful disagreement. Adults should be able to have conversations about important issues. I find that the readers of this blog are exceptional in that we talk without YELLING ... awesome.

Rachel said...

I think we are doomed to perpetual disagremeent on the language issue, Dave -- or at least, where we draw the line on it. Though I too draw the line at "retard" even if my attempts to get my much-younger coworker to stop saying it have failed dramatically. I have officially given up and as I never used it, don't use it now.

Every time a term goes from acceptable to offensive, a new acceptable term comes along, that in its turn becomes offensive as well.

Sheesh. My personal view? Call me whatever, as long as your intent isn't mean, I'm beginning to not care. Are you being mean? Then kindly shut up and go away. I most certainly care about that. Otherwise...whatever. Avoid the big minefield terms and any other words that are a problem for individuals you know, is all I ask.

Like I said, I think we draw the line in different places, and I think the idea of avoiding the less-obvious terms for yourself is a fine one. But I wouldn't count on erasing "blind leading the blind" from the language anytime soon if we can't even get people to stop using "retard" or "midget." And on both those counts I've tried.


Dave Hingsburger said...

Rachel, I have no desire, at the present moment, to go on a campaign for eliminating disability metaphors. I am just making a personal commitment not to - while other speakers may not 'think' about what they mean, I know what they mean. So, it's my goal to personally eliminate them. The 'r' word to me is different, somehow, and I will speak up when I hear that one. I think it's ok to set personal goals and ask others to join if they wish. One issue at a time.

Rachel said...

Oh, I know. And like I said, on a personal level, I think it's an interesting and provocative challenge. I simply never thought of "deaf ear" or "blind leading the blind" as anything resembling derogatory, nor have I ever considered that "idiot" means anything more than "kinda stupid" anymore.

I think I came across more harshly than I mean to. I guess I automatically go on the defensive when presented with people discussing what terminology should be used related to disability it isn't by us even though in this case it most definitely is. And as what offends one person doesn't another, it gets very complicated, given generational changes and simple individual preferences. It's headache-inducing.

So I apologize for coming across hard; I was aiming more for fairly firm but polite disagreement. My biggest worry is society's attitudes, as I'm sure they are for us all.

Rachel said...

Gah! Need coffee!

"what terminology should be used related to disability when so often though this is changing fast, thankfully it isn't by us even though in this case it definitely is."

Dave Hingsburger said...

Rachel, no, no, no, you didn't come across harshly at all. I just wanted to clarify what I meant by my blog. I think it's good to have people speak up in both agreement and in disagreement. I thought you expressed yourself both clearly and kindly. Never worry here at Rolling Around In My Head with expressing disagreement or taking an opposing position. You know what people who hold onto opposite and opposing views are ... 'interesting' ... perhaps sometimes 'infuriating' but certainly never 'boring'. HNY kiddo.

Rachel said...

HNY to you, too. I do like your blog tons, even when I disagree with something in it.

And the last thing I want to be is boring, even if my everyday life is, well, boring as all getout. *g*

flit said...

I was leafing through a home improvement book that hubby got for Christmas and happened to spot a section re: building a shelving unit in the walls. It discribed how to cut out a section of the stud and from then on, called it "the crippled stud." There's a word I have not heard in a long time - and even in the context of woodworking, it annoyed me.

Stephanie said...

I notice it and try to excise these phrases from my own lanuage. But I also wonder about meaning and word history.

Some of the words that cause pain in this manner originated with disability in individuals. Other words that cause pain in this manner originated with dysfunction in things, but became associated with people as well.

While I am conscious of the pain, and feel drawn in compassion towards that, I also think about what language we need.

Part of the problem is that there is often a shortage of acceptable, usable words and phrases to replace the language that we're trying to avoid.

Ettina said...

Personally, these phrases bug me more than using words like 'retard' or 'nigger'. Unpack society's value judgements and most derogatory words are just fine - which means you *could* reclaim them, as homosexuals have with 'gay' and 'queer'. But these analogies can't be stripped away into something nonoffensive.
I know I get really mad at seeing people using nearsightedness as an analogy for not planning ahead and autistic as analogy for being selfish or xenophobic. Words can change meaning more easily than analogies can, I think.

Andrea S. said...


Actually, the word "gay" never needed to be "reclaimed." For a long time (certainly into the 1940s and maybe beyond), the word "gay" simply meant "happy." No one used it to refer to gay people at all ... except for gay people themselves (not sure when that started). Because gay people were marginalized and pretty much all closeted living in an underground community, the vast majority of straight people had no idea about this.

The word "gay" did not come to refer to gay people among the general population until gay people themselves started coming out of the closet in the 1950s to 1970s and taught straight people the word they had been using to refer to themselves all along. This was in preference to the more medicalized term that psychiatrists used, "homosexual." Once most straight people came to realize that the word "gay" had an alternate meaning, they gradually stopped using it to mean "happy" (by about the 1980s when I was in my teens).

The first time I ever heard of the word "gay" being used as an insult or slur was not until well into the 1990s--AFTER the word "gay" had become a widely accepted and neutral or even positive word. "Gay" *became* a slur *because* it was already in wide usage to refer to GLBT people--and GLBT people were (and are) still stigmatized. In other words, the word eventually acquired the stigmatization attached to the people it defines.

Thus the word "gay" never had to be "reclaimed" -- it has been our term all along.

The word "queer", on the other hand, did indeed originate as a slur and came to be reclaimed. So thoroughly reclaimed, in fact, that googling the term results in so many positive GLBT sites that any hate sites among them (if any) get drowned out. However, the term "faggot" (not yet reclaimed) in google results in a very different set of websites.

None of this is meant to contradict your underlying points. I raise this primarily because this is the second time in the past few months that I have seen someone misunderstand the actual history behind the word "gay" and the inaccuracy bugged me.

bread & roses said...


I am a carpenter and I don't know another word for cripples in carpentry. They aren't "crippled studs"- they're cripples. They are short. Full length studs are called jacks, trimmers, kings, or simply studs. The kings aren't regal, and the cripples aren't disabled. That's just their name. Short rafters are also called cripples. Like male and female plugs, pipe nipples, chinking (between logs), pigtails, she-bolts, petcocks, bastard copes, etc- the language of construction is often very vivid and physical and easy for the novice to misconstrue or be embarrassed by. (Petcocks have nothing to do with penises). There are some slang terms that I try to avoid and are falling out of use- but in those cases there are other, appropriate, words. "Cripple" is the official, proper word for a short stud under a windowsill- or a short rafter. (Hip-valley cripple jack is a very specific part of a roof). And although there is a shared derivation, I don't think anyone I works with connects cripples (in framing) with the disabled any more than a sailor thinks of a tramp steamer as being a hussy. Do the carpenters I work with laugh when I tell them their caulk is dripping? Yes, they do. But we say it anyway because caulk is its name. And a laugh is good to get through the day.

I don't want to dismiss your discomfort. I just want you to know that in a carpentry context, cripple is a technical term.