What Should I Call Someone Who Is Blind?

Several years ago, a couple I knew was going to have a child and were undecided as to what to name the baby. It was fortunate that human gestation takes nine months because they could not agree on a name. She liked traditional names where he wanted something more contemporary. Finally, tired of having all of her suggestions vetoed, the mother-to-be announced that she was tired of her husband’s negativity and asked, “What about Mary? It’s a beautiful name, simple and uncomplicated.”

The father-in-waiting thought for a minute, smiled happily, and said, “That’s a wonderful name. You know that was the name of the girl I took to the senior prom.” I can’t remember what the baby was eventually named, but you can bet it wasn’t “Mary.”

I tell this story to underscore how we react to certain words is shaped by our past experience with those words. The letters that go together to form “Mary” have no mystical significance by themselves but may have very positive or negative power, or no power at all, depending on what we associate with them.

The word “blind” is a striking example of this. A national survey a few years ago revealed that only the word “cancer” was more frightening to Americans than the word “blind.” “Blind” was even rated more frightening than “death” make of that what you will. You don’t have to look very far to find examples of how this negativity runs throughout the entire language: blind ambition, blind to reason, follow blindly, blind trust, and so on. “Blind” is most often used metaphorically to communicate insensitivity or ignorance. There probably is an example somewhere of “blind” being used positively, but I can’t think of it.

This digression into linguistics suggests why many people are uncomfortable saying the magic word out loud in front of someone who is blind. In an effort to be sensitive, they struggle to find a synonym (sightless? visually challenged?) and, as a result, go through verbal contortions to come up with a substitute.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when calling the Microsoft Disability Answer Desk. It’s a great service, and I’ve always found the staff helpful; but I had to smile when listening to their recorded announcement that said, “Disability Answer Desk agents provide assistance to customers with disabilities such as people who have blindness, low vision, deafness, …” “Have blindness”? I felt as though I had contracted a social disease and that, if I only had the proper medical treatment, I would get better.

Interestingly, with rare exceptions, the blind person knows their blind and aren’t bothered by the word. It is, after all, an accurate description of a medical condition, not a personal insult. We don’t refer to someone who is diabetic as “insulin challenged” because the distinction between medical description and insult is unambiguous.

There, is, of course, an important exception to this generalization. Frequently, when someone is in the process of losing their vision and struggling with coming to terms with it, they see themselves as “having some vision problems” but not “blind.” After all, they reason, I’m not blind; I can still see something. Hearing themselves labeled as blind is emotionally traumatic. Under these circumstances, I just talk about “low vision” which I’ve found to be pretty safe. They are facing a very difficult emotional journey, and it serves no purpose for them to be verbally “outed.”

One final thought. Because vision is far-and-away the dominant sense in humans, our language is crowded with references to it: see what you mean, throw light on the subject, left in the dark, and countless more. These expressions are so prevalent that it’s difficult to get through a day without using at least one of them. I give you complete absolution to use these when speaking with someone who is blind. Unless the blind person is hyper-sensitive, they’re not self-conscious about someone asking them if they “saw the game yesterday” or “looked something up.” Besides, if they’re that sensitive, there are bigger problems than the choice of the right word. See what I mean?

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