The Language of Visual Impairment


Today, through a link on Facebook, I saw an old blog post called Mind Your Language on the Action for Blind People website. It’s an interesting analysis of the type of language used to describe people’s disabilities.

I personally describe myself as ‘visually impaired’ or ‘partially sighted’, as it succinctly describes what I am (and I am registered as ‘partially sighted’ with my local council).

I was interested to see Steph note this in her blog post though:

I know a visually impaired person who would prefer I refer to him as ‘vision impaired’ He says ‘visually impaired suggests he is impaired to look at. He thinks the term more accurately describes someone who might have a facial disfigurement.

I’ve never thought of it like that, but it’s a valid point. It doesn’t change my own personal preference, but every disabled person has a different level of sensitivity about their condition, so it’s an understandable reaction.

I never use the word ‘handicapped’ to describe myself, as I do think that sends the wrong signals, suggesting I’m much less capable than I am. I have described myself as having a ‘sight problem’ sometimes, but it only tends to be when it’s relevant to the circumstances – for instance, if I’m asking for assistance to navigate a train station or airport for instance, as it is accurate to say I’m having problems seeing where I’m going.

But generally it’s ‘visually impaired’ or ‘partially sighted’ that I go with. Or I’ll just say that I can’t see perfectly, without assigning a specific label to myself. It’s not sufficient in itself to describe how well I can see, but it gets the initial message across. People can, and sometimes will, ask a bit more about it, and I’m happy to try and describe how much I can see. I like the fact that people take an interest.

The people who don’t ask more about my condition do tend to assume my sight is worse than it is, and will occasionally try and help a little too much as a result. But I always appreciate their willingness to assist, so I just politely clarify what I do need if necessary, and things are fine from there. If you do want to know how best to help or guide a visually impaired person, though, this post from the RNIB might be useful. It’s another post I saw today, so I wanted to squeeze it in somewhere.

It’s also interesting to hear how I’m described to others sometimes, as it can also show a slight lack of understanding. There’s someone I work with who, when introducing me to a new visitor, will sometimes use the word blind to describe me. It seems to be the first automatic word that comes to his mind. I don’t feel offended by it necessarily, but I have corrected him a few times, just to clarify things to the person he’s talking to.

The word ‘blind’ in itself can be confusing anyway. If a person is ‘registered blind’ with the authorities, certainly here in the UK, it doesn’t mean they can’t see. They just have a severely reduced level of vision. That’s a key difference. Many can still see light or basic shapes and colours, for example. Sight isn’t something that is either on or off – there’s an infinite amount of variation between perfect sight and no sight. If you get a group of ‘blind’ or ‘partially sighted’ people together, every single person will see the world in their own unique way.

There are one or two people I know who will actually say they’re ‘registered blind’ rather than just ‘blind’. I don’t know if it really makes a difference, but maybe adding the word ‘registered’ makes some people pause to think as to why that word would be needed.

Some disabled people also have terms they use amongst themselves, with their own friends. Some of them can be a bit risque or rude if they have a very self-deprecating sense of humour. They’re not things they’d want others to call them, but among friends it’s fine.

A term that often gets used among my circle of friends is ‘gozzy’. I remember who introduced it to us, but we’ve never really understood what its origins are. It does seem to be a genuine slang term though, as the Urban Dictionary has a definition for it, with 3 possibilities:

1. A UK term for a person who is cross eyed or has a lazy eye i.e. boss eyed.
2. A guy that is cute and very hot.
3. A male with a high pitched voice.

Although number 1 doesn’t accurately describe those in my social group, I can easily see how it was picked up among my friends as a phrase for all of our visual impairments. Number 2 I’m happy to take as well, lol! We can ignore number 3 though – that would only come into play if I tried to sing, and mercifully for the world that’s not something I ever do!

I am also perfectly happy to have a laugh about my lack of sight with the regularly-sighted people I get on with, particularly my work colleagues. I’m quite happy to have a little dig at myself, and I think that’s helped people to feel more comfortable around me, and not so worried about saying anything that might be interpreted as offensive. Some people do get a bit over-anxious as to whether they’ve inadvertently said something I might not like. Which shows that they care, and that’s nice, but there are people who get far too concerned as to whether something is ‘politically correct’ or not, a phrase I’ve never liked.

So, yes, ‘visually impaired’ or ‘partially sighted’ are my preferred terms, and I’m happy for people to enquire further about my condition, as long as they’re sensible questions of course. It would be interesting to hear about the terms other people prefer and use as well – from regular phrases like ‘visually impaired’, to  more unusual or humorous ones. It would also be fun to know if there are any other visually impaired people who use the term ‘gozzy’. I get the impression we’re not the only ones if it’s defined online, but it’s not something I’ve heard elsewhere either.

And in general, when you do meet disabled people, be sure to put all your perceptions or stereotypes to one side, as it’s more than likely you’ll be wrong. As Steph says in her post on the Action For The Blind website:

It is best practice to ask someone how they would like to be described, rather than make an assumption.

A simple but very important point that I agree with wholeheartedly. The only person who truly understands a disabled person’s condition is the disabled person themselves. So just stay calm and don’t be shy or worried. Just let the person explain their condition and/or what assistance they do or don’t need, as much or as little as they feel comfortable saying, and everything should be fine. It’s the sort of thing I spoke about in a little vlog I did last year about interacting with disabled people.

Author: Glen

Vsually impaired, with Aniridia & Nystagmus. I'm a fan of Doctor Who, classic sitcoms, Queen and 60s-80s rock & pop. I like to blog about my experiences as a disabled person, and about the things I enjoy in general.

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