I wrote this essay for an assignment in November 2016 about the use of terms that make disability sound like a superpower, specifically after I heard a series of people refer to me as being vision empowered. It has been adapted into blog post format and while my writing style and my approach to issues surrounding disability language has changed as I have gotten older, I’ve kept this essay in its unedited format to show the perspective of a 19-year-old coming to terms with their vision loss who is learning about disability language.
Don’t Call Me Vision Empowered
I have low vision. I’m not ashamed of this fact, otherwise, I wouldn’t be running a website about vision impairment and assistive technology. However, I’ve met many people over the years who were ashamed of the term low vision, vision impaired, or blind. They decided to create new terms, one that made their disability sound like it was super cool or a superpower of some sort.
What’s the most ridiculous term I have heard about my vision disability, you ask?
I have heard this term several times, mostly from well-meaning strangers who wish to remind me that my disability is not a barrier to being successful. And I completely agree with their intentions- people can live an amazing and full life with vision impairment. However, I don’t like the term at all and wish people would stop using it. Here are my thoughts on the term “vision empowered” and a look at person-first versus identity-first language.
Thinking of disability as a superpower
Sometimes, people tell me that my low vision is a superpower of sorts. It allows me to avoid seeing the bad in the world, or to see people for who they really are. This is probably how people came up with the term “vision empowered.”
For me, it’s a little weird to be a “superhero” for doing things that other people my age are doing, just because I have a vision impairment. I understand that some kids might prefer to think of their disability as a superpower, but it’s a bit weird to hear grown adults telling a college student that their blindness is really a cool superpower.
On a slightly related note- I’m aware that there are vision-impaired superheroes in comics and TV, and I am not offended by their existence in the slightest. Though it would be cool if the actors/actresses that played them were also vision impaired, that’s another story.
People with vision impairments tend to be infantilized by people around them, whether they realize it or not. Using terms like “vision empowered” contributes to this behavior further. It implies that people with vision impairments are not capable of living by themselves or doing tasks independently. There have been strangers that have approached my friends and thanked them for doing the right thing and being nice to the blind girl next to them, or that have acted surprised when I say that I go to college. It’s definitely a frustrating experience.
But aren’t all blind people the same?
Many people believe that disability is a personality trait and that all disabled people are helpless and grateful for any type of attention. Alternatively, they believe that disability is something that defines how I will act- after all, aren’t all blind people the same?
In response to that question, I challenge you to think about these questions:
- Do all people with green eyes act the same?
- What about all dogs of a particular breed? Do they act the same?
- Does everyone who loves the color purple have the same thought processes?
The answer to all of these questions is no, and the same goes for expecting all people with vision impairments and disability in general to act the same way. People with vision impairments are just as diverse as sighted people, since sight loss affects people of all ages and backgrounds.
Am I a vision-impaired person or a person with vision impairment?
I go back and forth between using identity first and person-first language. I genuinely have no preference for which words someone uses to describe me in that respect. This is because I am open about my condition, and acknowledge that it influences who I am to a point- there’s lots of visual information I miss out on in my day-to-day life.
I will never use language such as “suffering from low vision” to describe my condition because I am not suffering by not having my eyesight. All of the vision impaired people I have met have a universal dislike for phrases that imply we are suffering or otherwise miserable by our conditions. For most of us, we are thriving with our disability, not despite it.
So, what should I call someone with sight loss then?
Here’s a list of common terms I recommend using to describe varying degrees of sight loss. These words that describe sight loss are used by me and my friends, sometimes interchangeably:
- Vision impaired
- Low vision
- Partially sighted
- Visually impaired
- Legally blind
- Has sight loss
- Has vision loss
- Decreased vision
- Limited eyesight
- No usable vision
If you are a sighted person talking to someone with sight loss, listen to what words they use to describe themselves, and use those. Don’t try to correct them or suggest that they choose something else.
I wrote this post after feeling frustrated about being called “vision empowered” by a bunch of adults because it seemed like they wanted to mask my disability as much as possible. If someone called me “vision empowered” again, I would say “I am actually vision-impaired” and drop the subject.
At the end of the day, I am not vision empowered, or even vision impaired.
I’m just Veronica.