I’m not easily offended. I’ve always said this and meant it. I think a big contributor to this is that my motto has always been to read between the lines and look at the intention behind another person’s actions or words, as opposed to the outward expression that may be out of alignment with what they truly mean. I still operate by this motto and it keeps me from being easily angered or hurt, but recently I’ve begun to explore the idea of intention versus impact. Yes, intention is key, but impact matters too.
Often times, we speak and are completely unaware or oblivious that what we’ve just said may be hurtful to someone on the receiving end. And more times than not, this is due to the fact that we’ve never had direct experience with someone or something that would alert us to that potential hurt. Since having Finn, I find myself triggered by a lot of common phrases that never even used to register for me as offensive. In fact, I know I’ve even used many of them myself in the past due to my own sighted privilege. Things like:
“You’re either blind or living under a rock.”
“Wake up and take the blinders off.”
“The blind leading the blind”
“Turn a blind eye”
“What’s the matter, are you blind?”
“If you didn’t realize ___, then you must be blind.”
“I was completely blindsided.”
Each of these phrases I’ve heard countless times from friends, from family, on television, or in books, all said, assumingly without a thought, because to them, they are just a joke or common phrase. Though these kinds of phrases don’t always offend me, you better believe I now notice them. Why? Because each of these statements implies that the word blind means ignorant, unaware, incapable, or to be living in darkness. None of which my child is. None of which other blind people are simply as a result of their blindness.
I did a little experiment over the last two weeks where I counted how many similar remarks were made to me, around me, on social media or on television that fell into this category. I counted 18 in a two-week period. That’s more than once a day! Think about the impact that kind of repetition can have. Think about the narrative that creates for the blind and visually impaired community. The same goes for any other marginalized community that is constantly subjected to misused, insensitive words or negative stereotypes.
My point here isn’t to suggest that I’m constantly offended or that these types of statements always have negative impact. And certainly, I don’t find the word blind to be offensive –it’s a simple adjective to describe my son, much like blonde-haired, tall or thin. Rather, I think we could all benefit from being a bit more selective and thoughtful with our word choices and in this case, if you’re using the word blind, to be careful that your intention is to mean “sightless” and not clueless. With something like “the blind leading the blind” that has been said a million times, we should stop and ask ourselves, is this really what I want to say and how I intend to categorize people who are blind? I don’t want anyone to equate blindness with ignorance or lack of awareness. My son is one of the smartest, most aware kids I know, not in spite of his blindness, but I believe, in part, because of it. From what I witness, he is able to focus so much more than I am on the information he receives possibly because he is free of so many visual distractions. Regardless of the reasons, it would be supremely inaccurate to categorize him as clueless.
I also don’t mean to suggest that we should all walk on eggshells around each other and be fearful to speak freely. I don’t want anyone to censor themselves around me. I do think it’s important, though, that when someone says something that may be unintentionally hurtful to us, or someone else, that we speak up so we can collectively help change a narrative that has been perpetuated over time and use. In other words, if instead of brushing off negative or mischaracterized language as unintentional and ignoring it, we communicate to those around us a better way of phrasing it, then maybe these phrases don’t become quite so commonplace and their negative impact is lessened. So, I’ve decided that impact matters just as much as intention — and ensuring that those around us are aware of the impact of their words, whether intentional or not, is as important as being aware of our own.