The Words We Choose

At the moment, I’m doing a series of creative workshops with a group of people. We’re working on a writing project which will lead to the publication of a small book of poems. It’s an enjoyable experience, and the people are enthusiastic and attentive. Many words are used to describe the people I’m working with, and these words have evolved over time. The choice of words used to describe them is the cause of much debate. The organisation they attend for services is referred to as an intellectual disability association.

Disability Pic
What words should be used to describe people with disabilities?

When it comes to defining things that are delicate or that are hard to define, there are three approaches that people take.

Minimising the Impact

Some people like to name things in a way that reduces the emotional impact this may cause. These people would refer to my budding writers as having special needs. Their intention is to spare people’s feelings, but there is a danger that you could be seen to fudge the issue. What is so wrong with naming a thing for what it is? Also, some terms that seem kind are actually quite vague. What special needs do these people have? And doesn’t everyone have special needs?

No Names Needed

Other people go a step further and prefer to use no terminology at all. A well-known journalist was recently interviewed about his daughter, who has Down Syndrome. He was asked what words the family used to describe her condition. He said, ‘We just call her by her name.’

As a parent, he has more than earned the right to use whatever words he wants, or no words at all. But the reality is that his daughter has a condition and at some point, words need to be used to describe it. Besides, having Down Syndrome isn’t something that needs to be hidden. It’s just another aspect of a person, like their allegiance to a football team or their love of cheesy pop music.

Finding Comfort in Names

And then there are people who like things to be named, to be defined. They find comfort in having things named in a way that accurately describes them. They feel that words give shape to complex feelings, thoughts and concepts. But there is a danger that in seeking this comfort, they can define a person too rigidly by their condition.

For example, these are the people who are inclined to use a phrase like mentally retarded. It’s true that in its original sense, this phrase conveys the concept of a brain that is delayed in its function, so that it takes longer for the affected person to reach life’s milestones. But the connotations of this phrase now, of inferiority, of damage, means that its use is frowned upon.

Intellectual disability is the term that has come to replace it. The organisation I’m working for clearly deems it suitable as a way to describe people whose brains work differently. But ultimately, if we want to know which words are the right ones to describe the people I’m working with, we must let ourselves be guided by them, and by their loved ones.

As I said, this is a subject that attracts lively debate. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you approach the naming of delicate things, whether it relates to disability or to other sensitive situations.

 

My Year in Photography

 

St Audoen's Church
St Audoen’s Church in Dublin. Its beauty inspired me to take out my phone camera.

I took this picture at a church in Dublin at a choral concert I was attending. I took it a year ago this weekend. It’s not the first picture I’ve ever taken, but it is the first time I took a picture in response to something I had seen and the first time I felt a desire to capture a moment.

I was halfway through a weekend photography course at the National Council for the Blind (NCBI) training centre in Dublin in photography aimed at visually impaired people. When the course began that morning, we sat in a circle and told the facilitator, a German photographer called Karsten Hein who works with blind photographers, why we were there.

Reasons for Taking Part

Many of the participants said they had been keen photographers before they lost their sight and wanted to rekindle their passion. Or they wanted to use photography to document the challenges they faced as visually impaired people. I cheerfully admitted I wanted more social media likes.

I wasn’t being entirely flippant. I did hope the course would help me negotiate a more visual world of communication. My world is a 1980s pixelated TV screen, so I never felt enticed to record what I saw. Yet pictures carry much more weight than words in the world of social media, and in the world in general, and I needed to stop fighting that fact. I hoped that on the course I would learn to take pictures that would enhance my words. On a visually impaired photography course, the organisers would understand my needs – and my reluctance.

What I wasn’t expecting was that I would enjoy it.

Worlds Open Up

We began by taking pictures of the NCBI garden. ‘Flowers. Boring,’ said my inner gremlin. Until I looked back at one of the pictures I had taken and saw a bee perched on a flower petal. I had not known the bee was there when I was taking the picture. I realised that photographs could reveal the hidden layers of detail that are missing in my everyday life.

Then we all discovered that there was a graveyard behind the garden. We were all highly tickled by this. None of us had known it was there, even though we had all visited the NCBI premises many times. The graves were a little far away for good pictures, but I went all poser-ish and took a picture of the bush next to the gates, to show how easily life and death rest beside each other.

Life Amidst Death
Poser-y photography moment

The Inner Eye

Later, we struck out and took our cameras to the canal bank. Volunteers from local camera clubs, who had also been with us in the garden, gave us guidance on what might make good subjects for pictures. Along the way, I took a picture of water flowing over a lock on the canal. The sighted volunteer was a bit shruggy about it, but as I gazed at the gleaming columns of water on the camera screen, I felt a quiet glow of satisfaction. And i wasn’t deluded. When I was showing the photographs from the course to my keen photographer husband, he said, without prompting, that it was a beautiful photograph.

 

Gleaming Water Columns
Photograph that demonstrates my inner eye.

 

When we came back from the canal, we discussed the photos we had taken. Most of the participants had less sight than me, but had a clear idea of how they wanted their photographs to look, and their photographs came out very strong. Their sight loss has not affected their skill with their camera, and their inner eye is still intact. The eye of their memory fills in the blanks. All they needed was someone to tell them where to point the camera, and to describe the picture for them afterwards.

Karsten asked me which photograph I wanted to discuss. I had so little faith in my own inner eye that I just asked him to pick. He stopped at a statue of the writer Brendan Behan sitting on a bench. It wasn’t a picture I had thought about much. I just liked the look of the statue and snapped it quickly. But now I saw how I had captured the expression on Behan’s face, made it seem as if he was looking back at me. I saw that I too had an inner eye, and there was no excuse for me not to use it.

 

Brendan Behan
Brendan Behan, and the way he might look at you.

A Year On

Here’s a pic I took last weekend, almost a full year after I took the course. I’m still snapping away. Have I gained more social media likes? Some, but it doesn’t matter as much as I thought. I enjoy capturing moments, the way photographs give shape to those moments. The photographs give me the chance to absorb detail, as I zoom in on them and spot the little touches that make the images rich. My confidence in my ability to capture images has grown, and I have power over all I see.

Kite Photo - Blind Photography
Still a confident photographer, a year on.

 

What Happens When You Park On A Double Yellow Line

At a one-day conference I attended recently, the MC told a story, as they do in their effort to fill the gaps. She told the crowd that in her determination to find the perfect dress for her brother’s wedding, she had parked on a double yellow line in front of her favourite clothes shop. She was heavily pregnant and due to be induced. The wedding was to take place a week after she gave birth.

I knew the clothing shop she was talking about, so I knew that there would only have been a narrow strip of footpath between her car and the buildings. As she spoke, and the crowd applauded her determination, I envisioned a few scenarios which I believe could have unfolded while she was in the shop.

Double Yellow Lines
Parking on double yellows: not a victimless crime.

The Scenarios

A blind man taps his way up to the car. His stick encounters the back tyre. He gauges the distance between car and wall and judges that there is not enough space between the car and the buildings. He taps his way around the car and steps out onto the road. Air currents swirled around his ankles, as cars whooshed past.

A woman approaches the car, pushing a three-wheeled buggy, the kind that can carry everything but the kitchen sink. The wheels jam in the space between the car and the wall. She can’t move forward. She has no choice but to go out on the road, inches from the cars.

An older woman comes up to the car, leaning on a crutch. She too finds that there isn’t enough room to pass. Out on the road, she holds her breath, hoping she’ll be able to move away quick enough if a car came up behind her.

A Victimless Crime?

People think that parking on a double yellow line is a victimless crime. I’ll only be two  minutes, they tell themselves. But a lot can happen in two minutes. And it only takes seconds to mow someone down.

If I were a driver, I might well be seduced by double yellow lines. Let’s face it – parking is a pain in the butt. And it takes extra minutes we may not feel we have. But we don’t live in bubbles. What we do does impact on other people.

How much extra time does it really take to find a parking spot? Maybe an extra couple of minutes. If you take those couple of minutes, it’ll mean one less obstacle for a stick user to negotiate. Nobody will have to hold their breath. And the buggy users, the MC’s fellow mothers-in-arms, won’t have to worry about the safety of their children.