Watch What You Say

In college, I studied psychology.  I won’t get into my disappointment in the lack of clinical experience in the program or the fact that I learned more from the elective classes I took than the required ones for my degree.  What I will say is that hand’s down, the class that stuck with me the most was one of those electives.  It was a counseling and educational psychology course taught by a man who worked tirelessly as a disability advocate.  He worked with the state government, with the Special Olmpics, with more groups than I will ever hope to remember.  He had a wife and family, taught at the university, and he had cerebral palsy.

I was very deliberate in the way I worded the description about him.  It’s one of the lessons I learned in his class.  It might seem like a minor thing to be described as a blind person, or a gay person, or a white person.  None of those are bad things.  But it puts an emphasis on that descriptor.  It puts being blind or gay or white above being a person. Above what someone has accomplished in how ever many years he or she has been on earth.  Is it nit-picky and politically correct to worry about such nuances in the language we use?  Maybe.  But if you’re someone who spends your whole life being defined by those adjectives, maybe it makes a difference.

who are you question

Maybe we should acknowledge people for their accomplishments first.  Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  Would you rather be viewed as a teacher who happens to be blind? Or “that blind guy who teaches”?  Would you rather be a writer who’s a lesbian or “a lesbian writer”.

In that class I met a woman.  An incredible, brilliant, hard-working woman who is a lawyer, has a fantastic husband, and a family.  She also was born without arms or legs.  Now, which do you think she’d rather be known for?  Her accomplishments? Her family? Or the fact that in utero her body developed differently.  There’s no denying that what she’s accomplished is extraordinary. And her disability makes it that much more impressive.  But it shouldn’t define her as a person.  Although it’s shaped her life considerably, it’s only one aspect of who she is.

To be frank, it gets clunky and awkward sometimes when I try to watch how I describe people. I get it wrong. I screw it up, I forget, I get lazy.  But I try to keep it in mind and do my best because it does matter.  At heart, we all want to be known for who we are as a person, for what we’ve accomplished.  Not for the aspects of ourselves that we were born into.

I’m a writer. I’m a woman. I’m bisexual. I’m a person.

Who are you?

And how do you want to be defined?

10 thoughts on “Watch What You Say

  1. Great post about something I rarely if ever think about but now that you’ve mentioned it I will keep an eye on how I phrase my descriptions. I’m not even sure what I normally say so I couldn’t even tell you if I tend to get it right or wrong.

    As for me I’m a woman, wife, mother, (non-practicing) international lawyer, librarian, writer and also happen to deal with Crohn’s Disease. More than anything I’m me: a person.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly. It’s something people rarely consider. I certainly wouldn’t have if not for this teacher, but he had a huge impact on the way I think about the world. And the way interact with people who have disibilities. I thought it meshed nicely with those of us in the LGBTQ (and allies) world too, to be honest.

      I didn’t know you were an international lawyer! Non-practicing or not, that’s incredibly impressive!


  2. Nhat a fantastic post. It is too easy to describe people as a list of visual attributes but I have been making more of an effort not to do so.

    Who am I? I’m still defining that for myself but I’d like most to be thought of as someone my family and friends can count on when they need me. Beyond that I’m a person.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It happens! I noticed a missing “a” in my post right after it went live and scrambled to fix it.

        Glad you liked the post. I wish I could take this class again because I feel like I’d get even more out of it now! I really should track down the teacher and let him know what an impact on me it had.

        I think the thing to remember is that you only have to define yourself if you want to. 😀


  3. Excellent post ….. I think a lot of us don’t realize how oblivious we are to our own sub-conscious labelling of those we come in contact with every day, be it someone with a disability, someone with a sexual orientation other than our own, whatever. This is a nice reminder to try a bit harder to see the person, and to recognize in ourselves, any latent prejudices we may unknowingly still carry around.

    Liked by 1 person

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