At our National Conference last year, we passed a remit calling on the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind to stop using the term “partially sighted”, and use instead “vision impaired” when describing the community it serves. So far the Foundation has ignored us.

At our National Conference last year, we passed a remit calling on the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind to stop using the term “partially sighted”, and use instead “vision impaired” when describing the community it serves. So far the Foundation has ignored us.

So why does it matter? What’s in a label. Looking at the whole disabled population, we used to be handicapped or crippled. Some time later we were disabled, and then we were “people with disabilities”. We are even referred to sometimes as “people experiencing disabilities” or “people who experience disability”, though I have to say I draw the line at these terms as being just too cumbersome.

The fact that the way we refer to ourselves has changed over time reflects something of the journey that we people with disabilities have travelled.

Prior to the 1980s, society tended to view disability as an injury to be cured by medicine or rehabilitation, in order that the person could join or rejoin society. People with disabilities were perhaps encouraged to do our best to adapt to society, but often found ourselves largely segregated from it, living, learning and working in separate institutions. The term “handicapped” brought with it the idea that we might be shown some sympathy and forgiven for not being able to integrate and contribute fully.

Nowadays, we people with disabilities have moved to the point where we claim the right to fully participate in Society. The terminology we now use reflects the idea that I might have a disability of some sort, but the extent to which I can or cannot interact with Society is more the result of how Society itself is structured than the result of my disability. The term “people with disabilities” emphasises that we are people first, equal in value to any other people; it’s just that we have a disability.

Take blindness for instance. There are lots of things I can’t do because I’m blind: like driving a truck. No question there. But there are things you might think I can’t do because I’m blind, but which I could do if only society worked differently, like reading a newspaper or reading what a teacher writes on a board. You might assume for example that when I am in a class room or lecture, and I ask the teacher to read what they are writing, this is because I am blind and can’t read it for myself. Not so. The real reason why I might ask a teacher to read what they are writing is that the teacher who doesn’t read what they write on a board has simply chosen a visual method of communicating their thoughts that discriminates against me. If I ask a teacher to read what they write on a board, I am not asking for a special favour; if I am a person of equal value, then that teacher has a duty to try to teach me like anyone else, and he or she shouldn’t use communication that discriminates if it can be avoided.

Anyway, I have a tendency to digress and right now I must resist that temptation. But I hope this helps you understand that the terms we use are not adopted merely for political correctness; they can be deeply significant to our very soul.

Sometimes we come up with new terms which may or may not catch on, but if they do catch on, it is because they more correctly pick up the nuances that people in general feel are important, and this can change over time.

Blind people have been blind for as long as I can remember, but a number of terms have been used to describe people with at least some vision. When I was much younger, people with some vision were typically referred to as “partially sighted”, and more recently as “visually impaired”, “vision impaired” and “low vision”. “Partially sighted” and “visually impaired” have fallen out of favour for various reasons, and in recent years, I think the terms “vision impaired” and “low vision” have become the most accepted terms. So for some time, when describing the entire population it serves, the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind would use the term “blind, deafblind and vision impaired”, and only a few years ago when the Blind and Low Vision Education Network NZ (BLENNZ) decided on its name, there was a clear preference for “low vision” over other terms.

The term “partially sighted” began to fall out of favour in New Zealand a number of years ago, I think possibly even since the 1980s. But it’s not as if such transitions are clearly defined. If I look at my own writings, I can find instances in which I used the term up to 2002, but not since then. It is widely used in North America (particularly Canada) and in the UK, and it often appears in World Blind Union documents. But when I looked into this recently, I quickly became aware that even in those parts there is some debate as to what “partially sighted” really means.

We generally don’t have commonly used words to indicate full capacity. The term “sighted” is an exception, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the main reason is that “sight” is used in different terms that describe the nature of what someone sees, even though the person is still fully sighted, and it has other meanings that are nothing to do with being able to see, meanings to do with the ability to perceive, imagine, predict. So not only do we have words like “near-sighted”, “far-sighted”, “long-sighted” and “short-sighted” which describe the nature of how some people see, but we also have words like “insight” and “foresight” which have nothing to do with seeing visually. So it seems to me the term “partially sighted” evolved as yet another variation of the type of sight anyone might have, but the term is not really suggestive of a disability.

For some reason, the Foundation has again started using the term in its writings. It was used in last year’s business plan, and again in its document released this year considering the organisation’s priorities looking out to 2020. We know that in July last year, one director expressed his objection to its use, but though the Board has not officially decreed that it be used, it seems that it is being used because of the influence of at least some other directors. This has caused some upset and people were moved to bring a remit to our Association’s National Conference calling on the Foundation to cease using the term and to use “vision impaired” instead. Despite the remit passing, the Foundation has so far not been moved to think again, and it is still using the term. We have again reiterated our view that the Foundation has no good reason for bringing the term back, and should cease using it.

If you focus on the community of people served by the Foundation, the problem with the term “partially sighted” is that there is a group of people who do not consider themselves blind enough to be called blind when they might have enough sight to, for example, see an object on the street and avoid it, but who also don’t consider they are sighted enough to be comfortable using that term. The terms “vision impaired” and “low vision” came into common usage because they more inclusively apply to the whole group of people with vision impairments.

When it comes to terminology, we all have our personal likes and dislikes, and we can generally give reasons for our views. People who favour the term “partially sighted” argue for instance that it reflects a positive attitude, like the cup is half full rather than half empty. They have even argued that a term like “vision impaired” has no logical basis and is simply politically correct. But people who don’t like “partially sighted” actually see this as the very problem. They argue that there is nothing wrong with being blind and people shouldn’t use terms that somehow avoid the very disability they do have. They reject the argument that the term is merely politically correct, noting that the anti-politically-correct brigade often trots that argument out as a desperation measure designed to trivialise the other view.

So why has the Foundation started to use “partially sighted” again? We know of no outcry against “vision impaired” which has been in use for some time. It could be that Management has simply made an error, but in that case they could have quietly changed their ways after our remit. They haven’t, and we believe the reason is that Management is being influenced by the personal views of at least some Directors. So is this an example of good foresight as the Foundation, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, seeks to take us back to something good from the past when the rest of us didn’t see its value? Sadly, I think it is more that the Foundation is being over-influenced by “our dim-sighted politicians” (James Adair, the history of the American Indians, 1840).

We urge Foundation Management to have regard for the remit passed by last year’s Conference, which we think continues to be the largest regular gathering of blind New Zealanders who make it their business to meet to discuss issues of concern to the blind community. We urge the Foundation to use terms that are regarded by our community as more inclusive and appropriate, and to avoid terms which have a tendency to cause upset. Do not be influenced by the views of Directors unless the Board as a whole has the courage to pass a formal policy decision on the matter. We have been moved to speak out on the issue and we expect the Foundation to listen, or give good reason why it should not. The opinion of individual directors should carry no more weight than anyone else’s personal opinion.