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.
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?